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State should respect history when setting elver fishing rules

Posted April 11, 2013, at 10:44 a.m.
Last modified April 15, 2013, at 8:06 p.m.

The Passamaquoddy were recently accused of putting glass eels in danger through their harvesting practices. In 2012, the Passamaquoddy harvested a total of 800 pounds of the state total of 19,000 pounds.

Maine does need to be concerned about overfishing the elvers and having them depleted like the sea urchins were. The key point is that both the state and the Passamaquoddy tribal citizens want the elver fishery to be sustained.

Passamaquoddy practices are based in conservation. They limit the total harvest,

but, by issuing many licenses, more Passamaquoddy people can benefit from the fishery. (Unemployment on the two reservations at Indian Township and Pleasant Point is 67 percent.) The non-native approach is to limit the licenses and equipment but not limit the total harvest. A smaller group of people get to make more income.

Which method is more sustainable? Which method benefits more people?

We also can’t consider this complex situation without looking at context and history. We came, we infected, we took and killed, until the original inhabitants of this land experienced a 96 percent population depletion since first contact. Our assimilation policies have created some of the most socio-economically distressed peoples in the U.S. and Canada. We need to carry that truth in our consideration of how to relate to Wabanaki people, not out of guilt but out of fairness.

Our agreements and treaties also matter. In the 1974 “Boldt decision” in United States v. Washington, U.S. District Court Judge George Hugo Boldt declared that Indians could continue to harvest fish alongside the state. The overall ruling was that the tribes could manage their own fisheries. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979. The Passamaquoddy are agreeing to limit their catch this year to 3,600 pounds. Why not have the non-native catch limited to the same amount? Surely equal limitations on the overall catch would protect the elver population.

By the state not allowing the Passamaquoddy to harvest as they see fit, it is denying court decisions, treaties and Passamaquoddy sovereignty, and it ignores environmentally sound fishing practices. Sovereignty means that these indigenous peoples are a recognized nation within the United States and have the right to self-governance. There is more than one way to protect the elver population. Why don’t we start by working with the tribes, coming up with best practices together instead of taking away rights they’ve had and then blaming them. The Passamaquoddy were fishing in these waters for thousands of years before we showed up.

In 1998 Gov. Angus King signed a measure awarding the tribe special licensing provisions for lobster, elvers and several other saltwater species. Last month the Legislature removed that Passamaquoddy exception. Did the state change the laws on the catch and tightly restrict the Passamaquoddy because the price of elvers has skyrocketed? They now bring in more than $2,000 a pound. If they were truly concerned about the elver population, why didn’t they meet with the Passamaquoddy and create a plan together? Crafting sustainable fishing strategies for the elvers deserves the wisdom of native peoples as well as state biologists.

Does the state only respect native sovereignty as long as they are quiet and poor? But once native peoples claim their resources, we no longer respect their sovereignty? Why doesn’t the state adopt the Passamaquoddy total catch policy?

This is a treaty the colonialists made with New England native peoples in 1693:

“Saving unto the said Indians their own grounds, and free liberty for hunting, fishing, fowling, and all other their lawful liberties and privileges as on the eleventh day of August, in the year of our Lord God one thousand six hundred and ninety-three.”

Arguably these treaties refer to vast quantities of coastal land where the tribes were without contact living “unmolested” on the land. I can find no treaty where any Wabanaki tribe ever abrogated these aboriginal rights.

It doesn’t matter that these treaties were signed a long time ago. This is the foundation we stand on today. The very least the state and federal government could have done, with respect, is sit down with the Passamaquoddy tribal leaders, look at the problem of elver depletion and together come up with best practices that serve aboriginal rights, state’s interests and protect the fishery.

Ignoring native practices and rights, creating a flawed law and then blaming Passamaquoddy fishermen isn’t our best moment.

Arla Patch of Bryant Pond served on the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation subcommittee.

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