The dispute between state and Passamaquoddy officials over management of the elver fishery and a license cap for tribal fishermen continued at a January 6 meeting in Augusta that was requested by Governor Paul LePage. Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves of Sipayik, who attended the meeting, says that LePage told him that the tribe has to comply with state laws on the elver fishery or he would shut down the fishery, since other states are accusing Maine of depleting the resource and mismanaging the fishery. Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher and other officials with the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) also attended the meeting.
Cleaves responds that the state is overharvesting the fishery, not the tribe. Last spring the harvest in Maine was 18,253 pounds, while tribal fishermen caught less than half of the tribe's total allowable catch of 3,600 pounds. At the meeting, Cleaves presented LePage with a letter from himself and Joseph Socobasin, the tribal chief at Indian Township, asking for a meeting to negotiate, on a government-to-government basis, the terms of a memorandum of agreement between the state and the tribe to ensure cooperative management of the fishery. The letter, on behalf of the Passamaquoddy Joint Tribal Council, states that "the 2013 American eel season was tumultuous and resulted in avoidable tension between the tribe and state that is still reverberating in the state judicial system." The tribes are seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2013 season, and the letter says, "The tribe and the state share responsibility for protecting and managing the American eel and must work cooperatively to manage the resource in a way that avoids conflict and promotes responsible stewardship." The letter adds, "We must settle upon a regulatory system that not only prevents depletion of the American eel but empowers Maine's citizens and Passamaquoddy tribal members to earn a livelihood where other economic opportunities do not exist."
The dispute has been centered on two different management approaches for the resource and the number of elver fishing licenses the tribe issues. The state has a cap on licenses, while the tribe is continuing with its approach to allow all tribal members to access the fishery and to limit the take by using a fishing quota. Last March, the tribe had issued 575 elver fishing licenses, which led to tensions between the state and the tribe over the number of licenses being issued. On March 21 the state enacted a law authorizing the tribe to issue only 200 licenses for the season. The DMR declared that licenses beyond the initial 200 were invalid, and the Maine Marine Patrol issued summonses to over 50 tribal members for fishing without a valid license.
Along with discussions between the executive branches of the state and tribe over the issue, the legislature's Marine Resources Committee will be holding a hearing on January 13 on emergency legislation submitted by the DMR that would provide that a license to take marine organisms issued to any member of the four federally recognized tribes in the state is not valid until it has been submitted to the DMR and the license holder has received written confirmation that the license is valid.
Fred Moore III, coordinator of the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Advisory Committee, says, "The state can do whatever they want with their laws and their policies." He points to the 1998 legislation under which members of the tribe are exempted from state licensing when taking marine resources. However, they are subject to the state's marine resources laws and enforcement. Moore believes that the bill is part of an ongoing attempt by the state "to establish complete control over Native people. Fishing is just the latest frontier."
For its management plan for the fishery, the tribe's Fisheries Advisory Committee recently issued nine recommendations that include a ban on the use of fyke nets for up to three years. However, the tribe has postponed hearings on the proposed changes to its eel fisheries plan until the state decides on how it will amend its management for the elver fishery for this spring. The state is weighing how to reduce the 2013 total catch of 18,253 pounds by 25B40%, with proposals for either a total allowable catch or individual quotas being discussed. Two meetings to gather input from fishermen have been held by the DMR, one in Augusta on December 11 and the other in Brewer on January 7.
Charges dismissed in almost all counties
Except for the Cumberland County district attorney's office, the district attorneys in all Maine counties that were handling cases against Passamaquoddy tribal members for elver fishing without a valid license have been dismissed. The district attorneys in Washington, Hancock and Penobscot counties have decided not to bring the charges forward. The only cases that have not been dismissed are the nine in Cumberland County.
Tribal officials have maintained that the issue is one that should be handled between the tribal and state governments and that individual fishermen who understood they were fishing with a valid tribal license should not be penalized. With a change in the law this past spring to increase the penalties for elver fishing violations, all infractions after April 23 are criminal violations, with a $2,000 mandatory fine for those convicted.