PLEASANT POINT, Maine — The head of the state Department of Marine Resources met Tuesday with local Passamaquoddy Tribe officials to discuss concerns over elver fishery management practices.
Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, confirmed Tuesday that Commissioner Patrick Keliher visited Pleasant Point to talk with tribal officials about the elver issue. He declined to provide additional details.
Attempts Tuesday afternoon to contact tribal officials were unsuccessful.
The meeting comes on the heels of another round of public feuding between the Department of Marine Resources and the tribe over the tribe’s management of its elver fishery. The annual value of the fishery has increased significantly in recent years — soaring from about $500,000 in 2010 to more than $40 million two years later — at the same time that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has placed tighter restrictions on the elver catch limits.
Maine and South Carolina are the only states that allow fishermen to catch elvers or “glass” eels, which are baby American eels, as they swim into freshwater streams from the open ocean. Maine’s fishery is far larger than the one in South Carolina, where only a dozen or so permits are issued each year.
The interstate fisheries commission has indicated that the population of American eels is depleted, while the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering listing the species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Several states, including Maine, allow fishermen to harvest adolescent and adult eels.
In response to concerns raised by the interstate fisheries commission, the Department of Marine Resources requires all commercial elver fishermen in Maine, tribal and nontribal alike, to use individual electronic transaction cards every time they sell their catch to a dealer. The cards instantly update a Department of Marine Resources database of how much each fisherman has caught and whether that fisherman has reached his individual catch limit for the year.
Last week, the Department of Marine Resources enacted an emergency rule banning the use of fyke nets by tribal members who fish with sustenance licenses, which allow members of Maine’s federally recognized Indian tribes to fish elvers for consumption or other personal use but does not allow them to sell their catch. Sustenance fishermen are not required to use transaction cards or to report their landings to the state.
According to the Department of Marine Resources officials, if sustenance fishermen catch large amount of elvers with the large, funnel-shaped fyke nets, it could result in more elvers being caught in Maine than allowed by the commission’s regulations. Failure to abide by the statewide catch limit of 9,688 pounds could result in even tighter restrictions from the commission, they have said.
In a prepared statement released last week, Keliher indicated that fyke nets can catch far more elvers than any one person would need for personal consumption or use. He said in the statement that the department believes tribal fishermen may be using sustenance licenses to circumvent state regulations aimed at managing the fishery within the required harvest limits.
“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,” Keliher said in the May 6 release.
Elver dealers in Maine can only buy elvers from licensed commercial fishermen, but department officials have said they are concerned Passamaquoddy officials might try to sell elvers harvested under sustenance permits by shipping them out of the country, which would be a violation of state law.
Tribal officials have countered that the department is exceeding its authority over their fishery and that it is exhibiting a bias against Indians by seeking to place restrictions on how many tribal licenses they can issue or what kind of gear they can use.