PLEASANT POINT, Maine — Tensions between state and local Passamaquoddy officials over elver fishing increased late Wednesday when the Department of Marine Resources announced it was taking emergency action to restrict what kind of gear tribal sustenance fishermen can use.

In a prepared statement released after 5 p.m., department officials indicated that the department is banning the use of fyke nets by members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who have been issued tribal sustenance licenses.

Such licenses are intended to allow tribal members to fish for food or other personal use, but Department of Marine Resources officials said they are concerned sustenance fishermen who use large, funnel-shaped nets may be catching large amounts of the baby eels and then, in violation of state law, selling their catch to take advantage of high prices.

Demand for elvers has increased sharply in the past five years, boosting the value of Maine’s annual elver harvest from about half a million dollars in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. The value of Maine’s statewide harvest dipped to $8.4 million last year, when fishermen on average earned $874 per pound, but prices so far this season have risen back to about $2,000 per pound.

The department and the tribe have been skirmishing over the elver fishery for the past several years, though they have not feuded publicly since the start of the 2014 season. In 2012, the tribe caught Department of Marine Resources officials off guard when the tribe issued 236 licenses to its members. A year later, the Passamaquoddys caused a furor when they issued more licenses than the Legislature had approved for the tribe.

Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, said Tuesday evening that the department’s chief concern is that some tribal fishermen with sustenance licenses may be circumventing the system of individual quotas that has been established for both tribal and nontribal commercial fishermen in Maine. Sustenance fishermen are not required to report the volume of their harvests to the Department of Marine Resources and, if they are catching a significant number of elvers, it could result in a cumulative harvest that exceeds the statewide catch limit of 9,688 pounds that the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission has imposed on Maine.

“It increases the potential for going over our state’s quota,” Nichols said.

If Maine goes over the quota, Department of Marine Resources officials said, it could harm the resource and jeopardize the lucrative fishery with a resulting adverse ruling from the interstate fisheries commission. The commission has expressed concern about the overall population of American eels and has considered whether Maine’s elver fishery should be closed down.

According to Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, the department was notified on Monday by Pleasant Point officials that they were issuing sustenance licenses to fishermen with fyke nets.

He said Passamaquoddy officials at the separate tribal community of Indian Township had said they issued a few sustenance licenses to fishermen with hand-held dip nets, but that Pleasant Point officials have not been forthcoming. Maine’s other Indian tribes, the Micmacs and Houlton Band of Maliseets, have not issued any sustenance licenses at all, he added.

“The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point has decided to change harvest plans in the middle of the season, as the tribe has done in previous years,” Keliher said in the prepared statement.

He added that Chief Fred Moore, head of the tribal government at Pleasant Point, told Maine Marine Patrol officers on Sunday that the tribe plans to ship eels harvested by sustenance fishermen out of the country, which is not permitted by state law.

“Chief Moore has spelled out a plan that not only jeopardizes Maine’s compliance with [the interstate fisheries commission] but also violates state law,” Keliher said. “Let me be clear: when elvers are valued at $2,000 per pound, they are not being caught for sustenance, they are being caught and sold.”

Moore, contacted Wednesday evening by phone, denied that the tribe had made a decision to ship any elvers out of the United States. He said the tribe had federally recognized rights to fish for eels and other marine species, and he accused the Department of Marine Resources of discriminating against Indians.

“That’s all this is about — trying to keep Indians from catching eels,” Moore said. “It is taking tribal state relations backwards. It’s clearly racially motivated.”

Vera Francis, vice chief at Pleasant Point, said she was summoned Tuesday by marine patrol for an elver fishing violation but was back out fishing again Wednesday evening. She said the state has no legal basis for interfering in the tribe’s federal sustenance fishing rights.

“Keliher does not have the authority to rule on sustenance,” she said. “His authority is limited.”

Keliher said that, though sustenance fishing is a federal right, sustenance fishing restrictions are spelled out in state law.

He denied that any sort of racial bias was involved in the dispute. Maine law already restricts the use of fyke nets to some commercial fishermen, he said, and the emergency rule issued Wednesday does not impinge on the rights of any Indian in Maine to fish for personal use.

“I hardly look at this as a racial issue,” Keliher said. “They are not [cooperatively] communicating with us. We felt like they left us no choice.”

Moore said that, despite the Department of Marine Resources action, the tribe will not be deterred from its inherent right to sustain itself by fishing, which it has done for thousands of years.

“They are clearly setting the stage for a confrontation,” Moore said. “The state is clearly itching for a fight.”

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....