With the elver fishery in Maine set to begin near the end of March, the debate over the number of licenses issued by the Passamaquoddy Tribe is expected to heat up. Many people want to get into the lucrative fishery, with the price jumping to $2,600 a pound at the height of last year's season and the $40 million fishery now being second in value only to the lobster industry. While the state awarded just four new elver licenses this year, with more than 5,000 Maine residents applying for one, the tribe has no limit on the number of licenses it issues. However, the tribal government last week adopted other management measures to conserve the eel population.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has submitted a bill that, as written, would limit the tribe's issuance of elver licenses to eight. Last year the tribe issued 236 licenses. The bill will be the subject of a legislative public hearing on March 6. Meanwhile, the Passamaquoddy Joint Tribal Council, at a February 13 meeting at Indian Township, approved the eel management plan that was drafted by the joint council's Fisheries Advisory Committee. According to Jeff Nichols, communications director for the DMR, the department has not yet received the final version of the Passamaquoddy eel management plan and has no comment on an earlier draft.
Fred Moore of Pleasant Point, a spokesman for the Passamaquoddy fisheries committee, says, "Our approach to management is very different from other jurisdictions. It's not accurate to simply look at the number of permits that are issued for determining the impact on the eel population."
"We don't limit the number of permits, because the fishery is an inherent right of tribal members," he says. Instead, the tribal plan restricts the method of taking glass eels. For instance, the minimum distance between tribal fyke nets is at least three times greater than the state's minimum distance. "Under the state's rules, people could fish three times as much gear on the same river," Moore says. Also, tribal members are not allowed to dip eels within six feet of a fyke net, while he says the state has no such restriction.
Moore says, "Our management approach goes across the entire resource, instead of placing a limit on licenses for a particular life stage of the eel." Mature eels, elvers and glass eels are all considered in the eel management plan, with the plan prohibiting the taking of any eels longer than 4" in length, except for ceremonial and sustenance use and educational purposes. Both the sustenance and ceremonial uses have strict limits, Moore notes. Permits for taking eels for educational purposes are allowed so that the tribe "can teach our youth about this culturally important resource."
Under the management plan, tribal members can obtain a commercial dip net permit for $50, a fyke net permit for $100 or a combination dip/fyke net permit for $150. The management plan does not allow for any recreational fishery for eels, Moore also points out, while some states do allow a recreational fishery.
Under the plan, the open season aligns with the state's season, which is from March 22 to May 31. The plan also includes mandatory minimum fines and provisions for license suspension for certain violations. It also requires the Fisheries Advisory Committee to annually assess the eel resource and determine whether changes are needed to the management measures.
Moore says the plan was adopted through culturally based deliberations that were inclusive and transparent, with eight public meetings held at both reservations. "I think we're accomplishing a balance of the cultural interest with the health of the resource," he says. "We believe it balances the interest of tribal members of today and that of future generations, and we have placed the environment and the resource between the two."
However, he says that the tribe would make changes to the plan if recommendations that make sense are suggested. The tribe and the state have been in discussions about elver management, and Moore says, "We look forward to being jointly able to manage the resource with the state." He adds, "There's an opportunity for the tribe and the state to learn from one another and work together. We understand our responsibility to be stewards of the resource."
He believes both tribal and non-tribal members need to be educated about the resource. "We have a spiritual connection to the environment and a cultural connection to the resource," he says.
The DMR wants to address elver fishing limits during the legislative session to ensure that Maine does not exceed the allotted amount of gear allowed through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Fisheries Management Plan for American eel. If Maine is out of compliance, the federal government could end the sale of Maine elvers. Also, the DMR fears that an increase in elver fishing effort might influence the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision on a petition seeking to list the American eel as threatened or endangered, which would end elver fishing.
Under the 1998 Passamaquoddy fishing law, members of the tribe are exempted from state licensing when taking marine resources, but they are subject to the state's marine resource laws and enforcement. When the legislation was signed into law, the state's elver fishery did not have a limited entry system, and no action was taken since then to place a cap on the number of tribal licenses that could be issued. The state does now have a cap of 407 state licenses, with new licenses issued only through a lottery system.
The legislature's Marine Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the DMR's bill on Wednesday, March 6, at 1 p.m. in room 206 of the Cross Building. Nichols says the number for any cap on licenses issued by the tribe will be decided by the legislature. He notes that there will continue to be ongoing discussions between the commissioner of marine resources and tribal leaders to negotiate over a possible cap, with the decision ultimately being made by the legislature.