Passamaquoddys reduce elver licenses by more than 100, seek appeal to federal regulators

Paul Firminger holds an elver in his hand at South Shore Trading Co., an elver buying station, in Portland, Maine, May 11, 2012.
JOEL PAGE | REUTERS
Paul Firminger holds an elver in his hand at South Shore Trading Co., an elver buying station, in Portland, Maine, May 11, 2012.
Posted April 30, 2013, at 11:49 a.m.
Last modified April 30, 2013, at 6:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives of the Passamaquoddy Tribe say they plan to go around state fisheries officials and appeal directly to federal regulators about the tribe’s elver management plan.

They also say the tribe has reduced by more than 100 the number of active elver fishing licenses it issued for the 2013 season.

At roughly the halfway point of the season, tribal officials indicated that their fisherman so far have caught a little over 700 pounds of elvers, which based on prices so far this season, would mean more than $1 million worth of the juvenile eels since March 22.

The tribe and the Maine Department of Marine Resources have been at odds over the number of elver fishing licenses the tribe has issued to its members. Emergency state legislation passed this spring limited the Passamaquoddys to 200 licenses, but the tribe issued 575 to its members.

In response, DMR invalidated most of the licenses issued by the tribe. DMR itself issued 432 licenses this year, which means more than 1,000 were handed out throughout the state.

In a prepared statement released Monday night, tribal councilors and members of the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Committee, Newell Lewey of Pleasant Point and Leslie Nicholas of Indian Township, said the tribe plans to bypass DMR and take its case directly to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. ASMFC has set a limit of 744 elver licenses that can be issued in Maine.

“The principal reason we are going to Augusta is to remind the ASMFC that we are federally recognized Indian Tribes, and as such, all federally funded entities must consult directly with us, not through the state of Maine,” Lewey said. “Additionally, the state has no jurisdiction over our saltwater fishing rights, because they were not part of the Indian Claims Settlement Agreement.”

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Tuesday that the department disagrees with the tribe’s position over who has authority to regulate the tribe’s fishing activity. He said there is plenty of legal precedent in which the Legislature has passed laws that place limits on the tribe’s ability to harvest other marine species, such as lobsters and urchins.

“We disagree with their legal interpretations,” Keliher said.

Both DMR and tribal officials said Tuesday that they have been and continue to be in discussions with each other in hopes of reaching a resolution. Beyond a comment from Lewey that the two sides are in partial agreement over part of the dispute, the two parties have declined to comment on the negotiations.

Keliher did say that the emergency legislation passed this spring was intended as a temporary measure for the 2013 elver season, which ends on May 31. Without going into further detail, he said the department may recommend a 2014 tribal license limit different from the maximum of 200 set this spring, depending how the ongoing negotiations go.

Tribal representatives attended an ASMFC public hearing Tuesday in Augusta on whether increased restrictions should be placed on Maine’s elver fishery, but no mention of the tribe or its dispute with DMR came up during the hearing.

The dispute comes at a time when the value of elvers has soared. The statewide value of the fishery, in terms of what fishermen earned, went from $584,000 in 2010 to nearly $38 million last year as the average per pound price soared from $185 to nearly $2,000. Industry officials have said the spike in price is due to increased demand in the Far East and a lack of other available eels on the world market.

Prices this season started out around $2,000 per pound but have since decreased to about $1,600 per pound, according to industry representatives.

Prior to the emergency legislation being adopted this year, the tribe was not limited in how many elver licenses it could issue to its members.

The tribe’s position is that the number of licenses it issues is not important because it has set a season quota of 3,600 pounds, at which point none of its members can continue to fish. By contrast, the DMR reported that 407 license holders in 2012 landed 19,000 pounds of elvers.

The quota, the tribe maintains, is a much more effective conservation tool than a license limit. In addition to the 3,600-pound quota, the tribe requires its members to space fixed nets farther apart than the state does, tribal officials have said.

Tribal officials added that since the start of the 10-week elver season on March 22, the Passamaquoddy Fishery Commission has reduced the active number of licenses to 404 — which still makes the statewide total more than the ASMFC limit.

The majority of the revoked licenses had never been used, tribal officials said. If a Passamaquoddy fisherman fails to report activity on his license after three weeks, the license is automatically revoked, the statement indicated.

The statement added that, according to Passamaquoddy Police Chief Pos Bassett, three licenses have been revoked for noncompliance with the tribe’s plan, all for placing fyke nets less than 30 feet apart, and two fyke nets have been taken.

Kate Taylor, senior fishery management plan coordinator for ASMFC, said Tuesday that it is up to the member states of the commission to make sure their states are in compliance with ASMFC rules. In Maine, she said, that responsibility would fall to DMR.

Taylor said the ASMFC board could vote to recommend that the Department of Commerce shut down a state’s fishery if that fishery is not in compliance and that the commerce secretary then could shut it down. However, she added, the ASMFC board does not meet next until May 21, which makes it highly unlikely that the fishery would be shut down before the season ends 10 days later.

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