Gov. Paul LePage threatened retaliation against Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe if it continues to issue elver-fishing licenses beyond the authorized state limit, a tribal council spokesman said Monday.
Newell Lewey of Pembroke said he and other tribal members were part of a one-minute conference call with LePage on Monday morning in which the governor asked them if the tribe would follow state law regarding the valuable elver fishery.
When they responded that the tribe, not the state, has authority over licensing, catch limits and enforcement for Passamaquoddies, LePage threatened reprisals in a “loud, enraged and demanding tone,” said Lewey.
LePage said he would immediately withdraw all support for the tribe and suspend consulting with it on any matter; dismantle the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which promised to uncover the fate of Indian children taken from their families and placed with white families or in foster homes; and fight any proposal for a casino in Washington County, Lewey said.
“He also threatened to shut down the entire fishery,” Lewey said.
Repeated calls to the governor’s press secretary were not returned Monday night.
Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, said he had heard about the call and that the governor had threatened to call in the National Guard to ensure that state laws on elver fishing were enforced.
The incident was the latest in a series of skirmishes between the tribe and state officials over licensing for the elver fishery.
The baby eels, which swim upriver each spring in Maine, can fetch $2,000 a pound. The fishery’s value last year was $38 million.
Tensions were already high Monday because of a confrontation Sunday night in Pembroke, in Washington County, between state officials and Passamaquoddy Indians who were fishing along the Pennamaquan River.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said officials from his department, state troopers and Maine game wardens tried to check licenses and seize the gear of fishermen who were in violation.
The three or four Passamaquoddy fishermen who were being checked by authorities were joined by nearly 60 others within minutes, said Col. Joseph Fessenden of the Maine Marine Patrol, the enforcement branch of the Department of Marine Resources.
“The safety of law enforcement officers was in jeopardy,” Keliher said. Outnumbered two-to-one by the fishermen, officers withdrew.
A second check was made on fishermen and a net was seized on the Dennys River, also in Down East Maine.
“I think it was a show of force,” said Lewey. “We had no guns. They did.”
Under state regulations, the Passamaquoddy tribe was allowed to issue 150 licenses this year – compared with four new licenses issued through a lottery that drew more than 5,000 applicants from the rest of the state. The tribe issued 525 licenses, 375 more than the law allows, Keliher said.
At a work session of the Marine Resources Committee on Monday, Keliher asked the committee to authorize emergency legislation to criminalize any illegal takings in the elver fishery and impose stiffer fines for violations.
Poaching, fishing during a closed period and other prohibited catches would be subject to the criminal charges, said Rep. Walter Kumiega III, D-Deer Isle. Once drafted, the bill will come to the committee – probably on Wednesday morning.
It then would be referred to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to ensure that any legal implications of criminalizing what’s now a civil infraction are resolved. Assuming the bill clears that review, it could go before the Legislature on Thursday, Kumiega said.
In a news release, the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Advisory Committee countered the characterization of the tribe’s alleged overfishing or illegally taking elvers.
“Recently, the Passamaquoddy tribe has been accused of placing the glass eel fishery in such extreme danger that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission might force the shutdown of the state’s glass eel fishery,” the committee wrote. “Nothing can be further from the truth.”
Lewey called the claim of excessive tribal fishing “an outright lie.” He said the tribe has a set limit of 3,600 pounds of elvers and enforces it strictly with its own officer.
“In fact, the Passamaquoddy approach to the glass eel fishery is rooted in traditional knowledge of the species … and a profound scientific understanding of the ecology of the watershed, resulting in a strict conservation framework,” the tribal release said. “This framework is superior to that of the state of Maine.”
“There’s a serious developing situation,” Keliher told the committee. “The Passamaquoddy tribe has clearly drawn a line in the sand, and they are declaring that they have sovereignty.”
He advised lawmakers to pass several provisions in an emergency measure, including:
• Change license violations from civil to criminal infractions.
• Set fines at a mandatory $2,000.
• Require that license holders be able to provide photo identification so that officials could track use of the licenses and dealers could be certain who is selling to them.
• Make data on landings available to the Bureau of Marine Resources/Marine Patrol.
The problem with poaching is so severe that it demands such careful monitoring and strong measures, said Keliher, who said he has hired an investigator for the department solely to probe fraud in the fishery.
“The governor is very concerned about criminalizing a whole fishery,” said Keliher, who had met with LePage. “With the gold rush mentality with this fishery, it is entirely appropriate.”
Johnson said, “I’d like to find another way.”
He said he has been working to find a compromise in which the Passamaquoddy tribe would be allowed a catch quota rather than a license and gear limit.
Lewey said, however, that the tribe and its self-rule are not the problem. None of the issues came up until demand rocketed prices to more than $2,500 a pound in the fishery.
Asked when he thought LePage intended to initiate measures aimed at the tribe and its practices, Lewey said: “Right after the phone clicked.”
This story was updated at 11:16 a.m. April 2 to correct the amount of the tribe’s self-imposed catch limit. Incorrect information was provided by the tribe. It was later updated at 4:42 p.m. April 2 to correct the agency that employs Col. Joseph Fessenden.
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