Sovereignty battle brewing over elver dispute between Passamaquoddy, state government

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 01, 2013, at 1:26 p.m.
Last modified April 01, 2013, at 5:05 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Passamaquoddy leaders are decrying what one official called an “extreme show of force” by Marine Patrol, who confiscated three elver nets from tribal fishermen after a confrontation with tribe officials at the Pennamaquan River.

A confrontation occurred around 10:30 p.m. Sunday between members of the Marine Patrol, state police and the tribe in Pembroke, according to Newell Lewey, a Tribal Council member of the Passamaquoddy at Pleasant Point.

“I told them that they did not have jurisdiction,” Lewey said Monday morning. “These people’s understanding is that they were fishing within the jurisdiction and rules of the tribe, so if they were going to come after anybody, they should come after me, not the individual members of the tribe.”

Lewey said that in addition to Marine Patrol officers, several Maine State Police troopers were on-scene to help enforce the state’s claim to jurisdiction over the tribal fishery.

“It was an extreme show of force on Patrick Keliher’s part,” Lewey said.

The police had arrived to issue summonses to fishermen operating with Passamaquoddy elver licenses that were not being validated by the state. The tribe issued 575 permits to harvest elvers, 425 of which are illegal, according to Department of Marine Resources.

In testimony before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee on Monday, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the law enforcement officers who attempted to check the elver licenses in Pembroke grew fearful for their safety after being outnumbered by Passamaquoddys in the confrontation. Keliher was on-scene in Pembroke on Sunday night and spoke with tribal leaders, Lewey said.

Ultimately, Keliher and Marine Patrol opted not to issue summonses to the three tribal fishermen in Pembroke, Lewey said, but did confiscate three fyke nets. The tribe said another fyke net also was confiscated Sunday in Dennysville.

Efforts to contact Keliher or members of the Marine Patrol on Monday were unsuccessful.

The confrontation Sunday in Pembroke was the latest development in a brewing battle pitting the DMR against Passamaquoddy fishermen operating under permits issued by the tribe.

Lewey said the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Committee was meeting Monday morning to discuss what its next steps will be in resolving the jurisdictional dispute with the state. He also said the tribe had been contacted by Gov. Paul LePage’s legal counsel in effort to set up a meeting between tribal leaders and the governor’s administration.

Historically, the tribe has had the right to issue as many elver permits as they wanted, but this year, a new state lawsigned by Gov. Paul LePage on March 21 — set a limit of 150 permits for fyke net use anywhere in the state and 50 dip-net permits for fishermen on the St. Croix River.

The new legislation was prompted by concern for the American eel population, which led the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider listing the species under the Endangered Species Act. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has placed restrictions on Maine’s elver fishery, limiting the state to a maximum of 744 licenses and roughly 1,200 pieces of elver fishing gear.

DMR has said it would issue summonses to any Passamaquoddy elver harvester operating with a permit number higher than 150, and would confiscate that individual’s fishing gear. The tribe views such action as an attack on its sovereignty, and tribal officials say they will not back down.

“Barring any last-minute arrangements between the state and tribal leadership, the only accommodation being made at this time is that more people will be out fishing,” said Fred Moore III, a former tribal representative in Augusta and a member of the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Committee.

“The state can come and take two or three nets out, and six will join back in,” he said Monday. “This is not something the Passamaquoddy tribe will simply roll over for. This is about our identity.”

On Friday, Keliher said that by issuing more than twice the number of elver permits allocated by the state, the tribe has put Maine out of compliance with federal elver regulations.

“The Passamaquoddys have jeopardized this entire fishery for the entire state,” he said.

At a press conference Sunday in Calais, Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves said the tribe would challenge any charges against tribal fishing activity all the way up to Maine Supreme Judicial Court, if necessary.

Cleaves said Sunday that at least three tribe members had been issued summonses. The total number of summonses issued since DMR started enforcing the new law Sunday is unknown.

The Passamaquoddy claim they use resource management techniques superior to those enacted by DMR, including a 3,600 pound total catch limit and rules about the spacing of fyke nets. The state has no total allowable catch limits, instead opting to limit the number of elver licenses available.

Moore said the management practices are “based on our culture and didn’t require policing because we don’t approach resource utilization from the standpoint of exploitation.”

“Over the past 15 years, we have very meticulously, methodically and carefully codified our cultural practices, and that takes a long time,” he said Monday. “The result is a management plan native in origin.”

Interest in Maine’s elver fishery has dramatically increased 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.

Prices that dealers are offering fishermen so far this season range from $1,700 to $2,000 per pound, fishermen and state officials have said.

BDN reporter Robert Long contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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