Nearly 20 people traveled to Augusta on March 6 to testify before the legislature's Marine Resources Committee on a bill that would cap the number of elver fishing licenses issued by the Passamaquoddy Tribe. As written, the bill, submitted by the Department of Marine Resources, would limit the tribal issuance of elver licenses to eight and of scallop licenses to 20.
Elvers, also known as "glass eels," are juvenile eels first returning to fresh water from the ocean. They are typically sold to Asian markets and during the 2012 season -- March to May -- fetched as much as $2,600 per pound.
Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher stated that the bill is necessary to prevent overfishing, which could lead to the federal government shutting down the fishery entirely. "If the state goes out of compliance," Keliher said, "there will not be a fishery for anyone. I repeat, anyone."
Keliher pointed out that in the 2012 season the state issued 407 licenses and the Passamaquoddy tribal government issued 236 more. For the upcoming season, which opens on March 22, the DMR used a lottery system to select new licensees. The lottery received 5,236 applications and awarded four licenses.
The DMR is considering, according to Keliher, a proposal to allocate a total of 100 licenses to the four tribes in the state C the Passamaquoddys, the Penobscots, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Houlton Band of Maliseets C possibly leaving it to negotiations between the four to determine the final distribution.
In response to a question from a legislator regarding sustainable yields, Keliher stated that scientific evidence is not yet complete, but he said that preliminary figures from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) would soon be released and would be made available for legislative use.
Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves of Pleasant Point urged the committee to reject the bill or to defer it to the 2014 session, saying, "We need more time to come up with policies and procedures." Cleaves pointed out that resource protection "is part of our culture, it is part of our religion." Referring to Keliher's statistics, Cleaves said, "We had 800 pounds of landings and the state had over 18,000 pounds. Who is overfishing?"
Fred Moore of the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Advisory Committee stressed that "we want to work with the state," adding that "our focus is on the resource first."
Several speakers asked the committee to reject the bill, speaking of Native American rights and treaty obligations, subsistence fishing, and making reference to the terms of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act as providing the "correct framework for this discussion."
Fisherman Earl Gammon urged the committee to accept the bill, saying, "Nobody wanted our licenses when elvers were $20 a pound." He asked about the history of Native American participation in the elver fishery.
Lucas Wallace, who also identified himself as a fisherman by saying, "I've fished for elvers for 20 years," questioned the 800 pounds referenced by Cleaves, stating, "They didn't even get started until May."
To some degree, Wallace's question is supported by the website maintained by the Passamaquoddy Tribe where, as of March 6, a notice appears asking tribal elver fishermen to provide catch data for the 2012 season, asking for their cooperation "in this delicate matter."
Fisherman Tom Thomas, who claims to have fished for elvers "for 19 to 20 years," urged passage. His observation that "nobody's eating these, this is a money issue" forced the committee chair to remind participants that "we're not here for applause" and to threaten to remove spectators if there was a further outbreak. Thomas concluded his comments by bringing up the fairness aspect of a limited‑access fishery, saying, "I've been on the lobster waiting list for 10 years. This year I moved up two spots."
Julie Keene of Trescott spoke near the end of the session in support of the measure. "If you don't do something before March 22, we'll be dead," she said, referring to the number of nets likely to be lining the rivers.
There were no speakers that offered testimony about the scallop provisions of the proposed legislation. The committee will hold a work session on the bill on March 18.
At least four other bills have been submitted concerning the elver fishery. LD 604 would grant the Penobscot Nation the right to issue 48 elver licenses, and LD 497 would limit the harvesting to Maine residents using dip nets. Those bills will be the subject of a hearing on Wednesday, March 13, at 1 p.m. in room 206 of the Cross Building. In addition, LD 632 would make changes to improve enforcement of laws, and LD 731 would establish special elver fishing license lotteries in 2014 and 2015 and would increase the amount of gear that could be used.