AUGUSTA, Maine — A Passamaquoddy Tribal Council member said tribal officials found “common ground” with two lawmakers and the state’s Marine Resources commissioner during a meeting Wednesday morning, and they’ve planned another meeting for Friday.
Wednesday’s meeting at the State House was an attempt to de-escalate a continuing clash that has the state and tribe at odds over management of the state’s elver fishery.
Newell Lewey, a Tribal Council member, said he couldn’t divulge details of the Wednesday meeting with Sen. Chris Johnson of Somerville, Rep. Walter Kumiega of Deer Isle and Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. Johnson and Kumiega, both Democrats, are co-chairmen of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, which handles fisheries issues.
“We found some common ground, and we’re going to work toward it and continue the dialogue,” Lewey said after the meeting, noting that one of the common goals is “keeping people safe.”
Keliher agreed, but also declined to discuss details of the meeting.
“I think it was a very positive meeting,” he said to reporters. “There were some positive steps. We have some more work to do as far as reaching an understanding of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s resource management plan.”
The meeting came two days after tribal officials said Gov. Paul LePage threatened them in an angry phone call because the tribe issued more elver fishing licenses than the state allowed.
Fred Moore III, the Fisheries Committee coordinator for the tribe, said Wednesday morning that tribal leaders were headed to Augusta in hopes of resolving the standoff with the state over the elver fishery.
“I do believe that the Legislature genuinely wants to see resolution to this issue, but it becomes difficult when we start receiving threats from the executive branch,” he said.
The dispute centers on a bill LePage signed into law on March 21 that limits the Passamaquoddy Tribe to issuing 200 elver licenses this year, with 50 of those restricted to dip-net users on the St. Croix River. Meanwhile, another piece of legislation LePage signed into law the same day allows the Penobscot Nation to issue 48 commercial elver licenses, up from its former allowance of eight licenses.
Rather than issuing the 200 licenses prescribed in the new law, the Passamaquoddy Tribe instead issued 575 elver licenses, and the Department of Marine resources said last week it would invalidate all but 150 of those permits, saying the tribe had put Maine out of compliance with fisheries management rules imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The 15-state commission limits Maine to issuing 774 elver licenses, and the state Department of Marine Resources said the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s 575 licenses put the state over the quota. In a statement Tuesday, Keliher said the Passamaquoddy Tribe put Maine’s entire elver fishery at risk as a result.
“I don’t see how hydroelectric dams can chew up thousands and thousands of egg-bearing eels, and the Passamaquoddy can’t take some to feed their family,” said Moore. “There’s a fundamental difference to the approach of the management of the resource. We believe we’re effectively managing the resource for the benefit of future generations and the resource itself.”
Enforcement of the new elver license limit started Sunday, sparking a confrontation in Pembroke where law enforcement officers who attempted to check the elver licenses grew fearful for their safety after being outnumbered by Passamaquoddys. Keliher was in Pembroke on Sunday night and spoke with tribal leaders.
Ultimately, Keliher and the Marine Patrol chose not to issue summonses to three tribal fishermen in Pembroke with invalid licenses. They did, however, confiscate three fyke nets. The tribe reported that another fyke net was also confiscated Sunday in Dennysville.
“If he was in his right to engage in this activity,” Moore said, “he should have done it in broad daylight.”
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said it’s critical that tribal and state officials keep their lines of communication open. It’s also critical the Passamaquoddy follow state fisheries law, she said.
“If they’re seeking a resolution that includes complying with the law, that’s something we’d be interested in hearing about,” she said.
Kumiega, who sponsored the bill limiting the number of Passamaquoddy elver licenses, said the standoff between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe needs to be resolved so the state Marine Patrol can focus on apprehending elver poachers, rather than focus their energies on a small segment of the coast in Washington County.
“I’d like to find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to this,” Kumiega said before Wednesday morning’s meeting. “The Passamaquoddy are, for the most part, their other fishing practices are in compliance, and the more law enforcement is occupied with trying to sort that situation out, the easier it is for some poacher in the midcoast somewhere to sneak up to a dam spillway and catch thousands of dollars in illegal eels and get away with it.”
Kumiega said he was open to discussing the issue with Passamaquoddy leaders, though he said a deal is contingent on the Passamaquoddy changing their position on the elver fishery and following state law.
“Not only do we have to have laws in place that conform to the [state’s fisheries] plan, we have to enforce those laws,” he said.
Kumiega described Wednesday’s meeting as “a good conversation” and said tensions among state and tribal officials eased as a result.
“We identified several things that we agree on,” said Kumiega, who also declined to go into detail about the meeting or a pending resolution to the standoff. “One of them was to … try and work toward a peaceful solution to this that keeps the state in compliance and recognizes the Passamaquoddys’ ability to fish and to make a living from natural resources.”
In a March opinion, Attorney General Janet Mills said the Department of Marine Resources has the statutory authority to enforce state rules for elver harvesting on Passamaquoddy fishermen, contrary to previous claims by the Passamaquoddy Tribe that it has sole jurisdiction over the fishing activities of tribal members.
Moore said Wednesday morning that members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe will continue fishing for elvers regardless of enforcement action by the state.
“We’re going fishing,” he said. “The worse this becomes, the more native people will join. There are thousands of them that will join, and we hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Interest in Maine’s elver fishery has increased dramatically in the past two years as prices for the juvenile American eels have skyrocketed. Last year, Maine fishermen caught 19,000 pounds of elvers at price of nearly $2,000 per pound — up from just $185 per pound in 2010.
Moore said the Passamaquoddy Tribe shares the goal of the LePage administration to eliminate elver poaching, but he said the state’s Marine Patrol should focus its attention on serious offenders rather than tribal fishermen who manage the resource sustainably.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “The state of Maine should be focusing on apprehending criminals across the state of Maine rather than coming Down East to manufacture them.”