State regulators are pushing for a limit on tribal claims to Maine’s lucrative elver fishery to avoid a repeat of the 2013 season, when law enforcement clashed with Passamaquoddy fishermen on the banks of the Pennamaquan River.

The effort may end up heightening the tension instead.

The Department of Marine Resources is backing a bill that would make commercial elver fishing licenses issued by Native American tribes invalid unless they’re first ratified by the state. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, would also increase fines and criminal penalties for illegal harvesting of elvers, baby eels that have been sold for close to $2,000 a pound in recent seasons.

State and federal regulators are tightening restrictions on the fishery, which is experiencing something of a gold rush, because of growing concerns about overfishing and poaching. The 2014 elver season will start March 22.

Representatives of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes told lawmakers Monday that Kumiega’s bill is discriminatory and would infringe on federal and state agreements that allow the tribes to manage natural resources on sovereign land.

“The state needs to start managing elvers and stop managing Indians,” said John Banks, natural resources director for the Penobscot Nation.

Last year, law enforcement officers were dispatched to Pembroke to seize the gear of Passamaquoddy fishermen who had licenses that were not certified by the state. That started a standoff between the state and the tribe, which had invoked its sovereign nation status when it issued 575 licenses, well above the state limit of 200.

The licenses were technically invalid under current state law, and many of the fishermen received court summonses. But Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said several district attorneys found that they couldn’t proceed with prosecution because tribal members had assumed their licenses were valid because they were certified by the tribe.

Keliher said Kumiega’s bill, L.D. 1625, would ensure that future prosecutions could proceed by making the state the primary licensing authority. Rather than receiving licenses from their tribes, Native American elver fishermen would receive their licenses directly from the state.

SOVEREIGNTY VERSUS QUOTAS

Keliher said the bill is needed because the Passamaquoddy Tribe has indicated it won’t restrict licenses this year.

Passamaquoddy leaders Clayton Cleaves and Joseph Socobasin submitted written testimony Monday for a hearing by the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, saying the tribe’s management of the fishery is time-tested and effective.

While the tribe hopes it can reach an accord with the state, Cleaves and Socobasin told the committee through a representative that the bill threatens to undercut negotiations while infringing on the tribe’s sovereign nation status.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis told lawmakers that the bill would have consequences beyond the elver issue. He said it could criminalize sustenance fishing.

The Penobscots did not exceed the state limit of 48 elver licenses for members last year. Still, Banks expressed concern about the implications of the proposal, saying it would remove the tribe’s right to manage its resources.

“You’re treating us like seagulls in a dump, fighting for scraps,” he said.

Rep. Wayne Perry, R-Arundel, said the state must take action. He referred to concerns expressed by federal regulators, who threatened to shut down the fishery last year during the Passamaquoddy dispute. This year, elver fishermen are already bracing for 25 percent to 40 percent reductions in catch quotas as the state tries to comply with federal mandates.

Oami Amarasingham, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, urged lawmakers to reject the bill, arguing that it unfairly targets tribes for fishing that “they have been engaged in for centuries.”

The ACLU said that more than 50 members of the Passamaquoddy tribe received summonses and fines last year after lawmakers passed two bills that limited licenses and increased penalties. It said that 25 percent of all the criminal charges levied under the new law were against members of the tribe.

ASIAN MARKETS DRIVE DEMAND

Elvers are baby eels, born in the Sargasso Sea near the Bahamas and carried by currents to the eastern seaboard, where they eventually swim up rivers and streams and grow into adult black eels. Fishermen net the transparent “glass eels” as they swim upstream. The elvers are shipped live to Asia, where they are cultured and raised to adult size for the food market.

The number of licensed elver fishermen in Maine has soared along with the demand for baby eels in Asia. Prices skyrocketed after a tsunami in Japan in 2011 wiped out eel farms.

In the past, elver prices were as low as $25 a pound, but they climbed above $2,000 a pound in 2012. That season’s haul of about 19,000 pounds in Maine was worth nearly $40 million, earning some fishermen more than $100,000 in a 76-day season.

Landings declined slightly last year, to a total of 18,253 pounds with a value of nearly $33 million.

The race for elvers in Maine rivers is now the focus of an Animal Planet network reality show, “Cold River Cash.”

There’s also a sense of urgency among people in the fishery.

Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the 197-member Maine Elver Fishermen Association, said in December that the sky-high prices could collapse once the Asian eel farms are productive again. Pierce testified in support of the bill on Monday, as did other elver fishermen, who argued that the tribes should abide by the same rules as the rest of state.

BIG PAYCHECKS IN A POOR REGION

The financial rewards of the fishery are a backdrop for the tension between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

A significant portion of the fishery and the Passamaquoddy Tribe are in Washington County, which has the state’s highest percentage of people living below the poverty level (20 percent) and, as of November, one of the highest unemployment rates in the state (8.1 percent).

In December, the state paid out nearly $1 million in welfare cash benefits to Washington County residents. That’s nearly double the amount paid to residents of Lincoln County, which has nearly the same population.

According to U.S. Census data, Maine is one of nine states with 30 percent or more of its American Indian population living below the poverty level.

Last year, the Portland Press Herald obtained documents through a Freedom of Access Act request that showed the state had launched a special welfare fraud investigation that targets Maine’s approximately 500 licensed elver fishermen.

Some lawmakers were concerned that the initiative, called the Elver Project, was designed to target the Passamaquoddies, whose leaders claimed last year that Gov. Paul LePage verbally threatened reprisals during the licensing standoff.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:[email protected]Twitter: @stevemistler