Tribes criticize state’s reluctance over elver deal

Glenn Bernard of Presque Isle fingers through his elver catch from the previous night to try and find eels small enough to sell in Brewer on May 31, 2013.
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Glenn Bernard of Presque Isle fingers through his elver catch from the previous night to try and find eels small enough to sell in Brewer on May 31, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 19, 2014, at 12:38 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Indian officials have been strongly criticizing Maine officials since a preliminary agreement between state fisheries regulators officials and the Passamaquoddy Tribe started to fall apart last week.

But officials with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Passamaquoddy Tribe say they still hope to work out an agreement over the upcoming elver season.

Discussion between the two sides is expected to continue Wednesday at 1 p.m. as the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee meets to consider L.D. 1625, a bill that would set parameters for how the tribes manage their fisheries for the juvenile American eels. Passamaquoddy officials say they plan to attend the hearing.

Last week, the state backed off from a tentative agreement it had struck with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which had feuded with the Maine Department of Marine Resources over the number of licenses the tribe can issue to its members. The state attorney general’s office had told DMR officials that certain aspects of the preliminary agreement might not be legal under the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

Tribal officials have sharply criticized the state’s reluctance to move ahead with the agreement, which would have prohibited Passamaquoddys from using large, funnel-shaped fyke nets while allowing non-tribal members to do so. State officials also have said that they are concerned that if the state imposes individual quotas on non-tribal fishermen and then punishes them for exceeding those quotas, that the tribe’s exemption from imposing individual quotas on its members might be unconstitutional.

Leaders with the Passamaquoddy Tribe and with the Penobscot Nation have insisted that because they are federally recognized tribes, they have the ability to work out mutually beneficial agreements with the state of Maine and are not limited by how state officials interpret state law.

In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation said the Attorney General’s position on the legality of the proposed agreement was “criminal” and that the attorney general’s office should be “investigated.” The article did not indicate who or what office Francis believes should conduct the investigation.

Attempts Wednesday to contact Francis were unsuccessful.

Timothy Feeley, spokesman for the AG’s office, said in an email Wednesday that the office has no comment about Francis’ call for an investigation.

As for the tribes’ claims that they have sovereign rights that apply to their abilities to manage their elver fisheries as they see fit, Feeley noted that last year Attorney General Janet Mills issued an opinion that the state does have authority over Passamaquoddy fishing licenses.

The Passamaquoddys have issued prepared statements this week taking the state to task for backing off the proposed agreement. There are other examples of Maine law that have not been challenged as unconstitutional in which the Tribes are treated differently than other Maine residents, they said.

In a statement released Tuesday, tribal officials said they would impose individual quotas on their licensed fishermen after the tribe reaches the 80 percent mark of its total allowable catch of 1,650, which should resolve the AG’s office concerns about making sure all fishermen face equitable punishment for exceeding their individual catch limits.

Passamaquoddy officials also said they were dismayed that state officials suggested last week that the disagreement may have to be resolved in federal court.

“Our goal has been open, transparent and cooperative negotiation, and yet we were simply encouraged to ‘sue’ while the state continually refuses to put their concerns in writing so we could study them,” tribal Councilor Newell Lewey said in Tuesday’s statement.

Passamaquoddy officials said that with an agreement or not, the tribe plans to exercise its right to fish for elvers once the season gets under way on March 22.

“Yes, this is our reserved treaty right,” Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddy community at Indian Township, said in a statement. “But more importantly, it is who we are, who we always have been and who we will be as long as we are on this earth.”

 

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