ELLSWORTH, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage issued an ultimatum to the Passamaquoddy Tribe on Monday morning: Play by the state’s fishing rules or face consequences from his office, tribal officials said.
According to a Passamaquoddy official who sat in on a phone call from the governor, LePage threatened to withdraw support for issues of importance to the Passamaquoddy — including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a possible casino in Washington County — during a brief call with tribal leaders Monday morning.
Newell Lewey, a member of the Tribal Council, said he and several others sat in on the call, which LePage made to Chief Clayton Cleaves. LePage told the tribe he’d make good on those threats if they didn’t stand down on their claim to authority over tribal members’ right to harvest elvers.
“Gov. LePage also threatened he would shut down the entire fishery,” Lewey said Monday evening, quoting a letter sent by the tribe to Senate President Justin Alfond informing him about the phone call.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, confirmed that LePage had spoken with Cleaves on Monday, but said she could not comment on the specifics of the conversation because she wasn’t present for the call.
“The governor is gravely concerned about this issue,” Bennett said Tuesday. “We have state law that is very clear and we have a Passamaquoddy Tribe that is knowingly issuing more than double the number of licenses that are allowed.”
She continued, saying, “In regard to what some are calling threats, the governor has the responsibility to ensure that the law is followed.”
A March 12 legal opinion by Attorney General Janet Mills was made available Tuesday in which Mills backed up the state’s authority over tribal fishermen.
Lewey said there was no mistaking LePage’s intent or anger, describing the governor’s message as “loud, enraged and demanding.”
“He’s going to try to hold us hostage, that’s what he’s going to do,” Lewey said. “I was in there. I heard it. I heard his tone. There was no mistake.”
Rumors also swirled in Augusta on Monday that LePage had threatened to call in the National Guard, though Bennett said there was no indication that guardsmen would be called in to enforce the state’s rules on elver harvesting.
The dispute began last week when DMR announced that it would invalidate all but 150 of the 575 elver licenses issued by the tribe. A new state law limits the number of elver permits available to the Passamaquoddy to 200 — 150 permits to set fyke nets anywhere in the state and 50 permits to use dip-nets in the St. Croix River.
Keliher said the Passamaquoddy had put the state out of compliance with rules imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Enforcement of the law began March 31, and Keliher said any Passamaquoddy fishing with a permit number higher than 150 would be issued a summons and have their nets confiscated.
For its part, the Passamaquoddy say they aren’t backing down. Lewey said that even if he wanted to, the chief couldn’t back down because the Joint Tribal Council — which represents Passamaquoddys in Indian Township and Pleasant Point — had already spoken.
“The chief of the tribe is acting on a Joint Council Resolution, shaped by the people of the tribe, and the council voted unanimously, all 12 council members, to support the elver fisheries management plan,” he said. “The chief cannot override that.”
On Sunday night, there was a confrontation between tribal leaders, backed up by a crowd of Passamaquoddys, and Maine Marine Patrol in Pembroke. State police were called to backup DMR’s effort to enforce its rules and ultimately Keliher, who was on scene during the incident, agreed to hold off on issuing summonses, but nets were still confiscated.
Keliher later told legislators in Augusta that the police involved in the Sunday incident had become fearful for their safety because of the number of Passamaquoddy protesting their action.
At least three summonses have been issued to tribal fishermen, though DMR has not returned calls for comment, so the total number of summonses issued is unknown.
Fred Moore III, a former Passamaquoddy representative to Augusta and a member of the tribe’s fisheries committee, said attempts to strip indigenous fishing rights would only result in more tribal fishing.
“They can come and take a couple of us to jail, and 300 more will join in.” he said Monday.
The sovereignty dispute has grown hotter by the day, with the Passamaquoddy attacking the state’s elver management plan and touting the superiority of its own conservation techniques.
Lewy said the state’s effort to protect the elver population by limiting the number of licenses was inferior to the tribal management plan, which instead sets a total allowable catch limit of 3,600 pounds.
“The idea that we have jeopardized the entire fishery for the state is an outright lie,” Lewey said Monday night. “He [Keliher] keeps coming back to that number, that 150 or 200 licenses, but it doesn’t really matter because at 3,600 pounds, we’re shutting down, whether we reach that in early April or mid-May.”
The lucrative elver season runs from March 22 to May 31. Last year, harvesters netted 19,000 pounds of the juvenile American eels and were paid nearly $38 million for their catch. Individual fisherman sometimes received more than $2,000 per pound.
Regardless of whether the tribe’s management plan is superior, Bennett emphasized that the Passamaquoddys are not in compliance with the law on the books.
“There were no concerns like this brought up during the legislative process, albeit it was a relatively quick process,” Bennett said, referring to the rule passed in March that limited the number of Passamaquoddy elver licenses. “It’s very clear that the tribe is defying state law.”
While the Passamaquoddy seem to have drawn a line in the sand over the elver issue, Bennett said the governor hoped a resolution could be found before the dispute escalates further.
“We hope the lines of communication remain open,” she said. “The governor has a background of trying to improve tribal relations. He would hate to see this issue jeopardize that relationship.”
BDN reporter Robert Long contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.