For the past several years, there has been a simmering dispute — sometimes boiling — between Maine state officials and the Passamaquoddy Tribe over the elver fishery.

The state, citing concerns about the number of American eels, has sought to limit the tribe’s ability to issue licenses to its members for fishing elvers, or baby eels. There have been closed-door negotiations between the two sides which nearly resulted in an accord earlier this year, but they remain divided. Because of concerns about the safety of their members, Passamaquoddy officials have said, they reluctantly agreed on the eve of opening day to set individual quotas for tribal fishermen for the 2014 season.

But this is a short-term maneuver, tribal officials have said. Long term, they plan to continue the fight on a broader scale.

“The Passamaquoddy Tribe needs to move this debate beyond Maine,” Fred Moore III, the tribe’s fisheries coordinator, said Tuesday. “It’s too late to stop the natives now. We’ve woken up.”

That’s why, Moore said during a phone interview this week, he is visiting the Unkechaug Indian Nation on Long Island in New York, where state officials there accuse him of poaching baby eels.

Moore said the poaching allegations could not be further from the truth. He is not even fishing in New York, he said, but helping the Unkechaugs implement an eel fishery management plan aimed at countering the environmental damage that non-native management has done to the species.

At various points in their histories, Indian tribes up and down the East Coast have been on the brink of starvation but have survived by subsisting on eels, he said. Whether state governments agree to it or not — a dispute which Moore described as a “clash of cultures” — native tribes will continue to exercise their sovereign rights to fish and to protect the species from harm.

“We’re simply not going to allow competing jurisdictions to push natives or native cultures out of existence,” Moore said.

Moore added he is not sure when he’ll return to Maine.

Interest in elver fishing has soared since 2011, when a jump in demand in Asia made prices skyrocket. The average price Maine elver fishermen earned for their catch in 2010 was $185 per pound, and two years later it was more than $1,800 per pound. So far this season, prices have come back down to around $400 to $600 per pound, which still is high compared with pre-2011 prices.

Moore described what happened on the night of March 28, the day that New York Department of Environmental Conservation officials say he, his two sons and five Unkechaug Indians illegally harvested elvers on Long Island. Elver fishing is not permitted in New York, but fishing for adult eels is allowed.

New York officials have declined to release details about the incident that led to the charges but, according to Moore, he and his son Frederick Moore IV were walking near a creek in Southampton when two officials with the New York state agency approached them and asked what they were doing.

“I said, ‘We’re looking for eels,’” Moore said, adding that they were not out to harvest any. The conservation officers, he said, indicated that elvers are protected and accused them of poaching eels to take back to Maine, which Moore took offense to.

“I said, ‘If they are [endangered], it’s because you guys endangered them,’” he said. “We’re not going to come down here and engage in activities we don’t support or condone.”

At the same time, a few miles away, more conservation officers who had been “hiding in the weeds” confronted five members of the Unkechaug Nation and his son Kyle Lewey as they tended to a fyke net set up in another stream, Moore said. He said a nearby landowner who had confronted them earlier may have contacted state authorities.

“These guys were all issued permits by the [Unkechaug] tribe,” Moore said. “[Conservation officers] basically ambushed them [and] treated them like they just robbed a 7-11 at gunpoint.”

New York state officials have said each of the eight men is facing felony charges of possession of American eels in excess of the limit, possession of undersized American eels, and not having a state-issued food fish permit. Each also has been charged with a misdemeanor count of conspiracy to commit a crime and with using an eel trap with a mesh size smaller than the minimum limit allowed.

They are due to appear on the charges in Suffolk County First District Court in Central Islip, N.Y., on June 25.

Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaugs, could not be reached Wednesday for comment. Last week, he said the charges against Moore and the other people involved are “ridiculous.” He said the Unkechaugs take issue with all state-imposed restrictions on the tribe’s traditional activities.

“We have to find a way to survive and sustain ourselves,” Wallace said.

According to Moore, the Passamaquoddys have received requests for fishery consultations from other tribes and in the past have consulted on matters with tribes in Atlantic Canada, the Lenni-Lenape tribe in New Jersey, the Wampanoags in Massachusetts, and the Micmacs in Maine. He declined to identify other East Coast tribes interested in developing eel management plans, saying he did not want to subject them to scrutiny from state authorities.

Moore said the reason any state places restrictions on Indian access to traditionally fished species is to protect that states’ economic interests. He said Indian tribes are not opposed to working with “non-native” governments, but only to the extent that it is mutually beneficial to do so. Often their interests are not mutual, he added.

State restrictions on tribal fishing have “very little to do with conservation and everything to do with control,” Moore said. “It’s pure economics on the part of the state.”

Attempts to contact Passamaquoddy tribal officials in Maine about the incident have been unsuccessful. But according to a copy of a letter sent on April 17 by the tribes’ two chiefs, Clayton Cleaves and Joseph Socobasin, to the Unkechaugs, Passamaquoddy officials fully support Moore and the Long Island Indians’ elver efforts. They were “deeply saddened,” they wrote, to learn about the actions by New York state officials.

The Unkechaugs’ actions to protect their rights and conserve eels “will benefit all native people on the East Coast,” Cleaves and Socobasin wrote in the letter. In keeping with a 1996 trade agreement signed between the Unkechaugs and the Passamaquoddys, the Maine tribe intends to continue to offer support to their Long Island counterparts, they wrote.

“We stand committed to working closely with you in defense of the marine environment, its resources and fishing rights of indigenous people,” they said.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....