Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe will abide by state fishing rules for the elver season that starts this weekend, a tribal chief said Friday, ending the threat of conflict with state regulators.
The Joint Tribal Council grudgingly agreed to amend tribal law to accept the state mandate of individual quotas for its elver fishermen, Indian Township Chief Joseph Socobasin told The Associated Press. The tribe initially rejected individual catch limits because it believes natural resources belong to all tribal members.
It was a difficult decision for a tribe that believes it has the right to regulate its own fishermen, Socobasin said.
The value of the baby eels has ballooned in recent years, making elvers the second-most valuable fishery in the state, behind lobster. Last year’s catch was worth $33 million.
Socobasin said ignoring state law wasn’t up for consideration by the tribal council, which met for four days over the past week before voting Thursday to accept individual quotas as mandated by the Department of Marine Resources. The only options considered were to obey the law or not fish at all, he said.
“If I had voted, I would have voted not to fish,” said Socobasin, who is allowed to vote only in the event of a tie. “It doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not satisfied with how things had turned out.”
The state established catch limits after concerns about overfishing were raised by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which originally considered closing the fishery. The commission will review the elver fishery again at the end of this season.
This year’s elver season opens Sunday.
The tribe has submitted license requests for several hundred fishermen, Socobasin said. A handful refused to fill out the state paperwork in protest and won’t fish, he said.
Passamaquoddy fishermen won’t be able to fish for elvers on Sunday because they don’t yet have the state-issued swipe cards needed to sell elvers to licensed dealers. The Passamaquoddies originally negotiated a deal with the Department of Marine Resources that called for the tribe to have an overall quota but no individual quotas. The deal fell through after the attorney general advised that having two sets of rules for fishermen violated the state Constitution’s equal protection clause.
“We almost got there, but at the end of the day there were legal issues that we couldn’t ignore,” said Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher on Friday.
He said he was pleased that the tribe agreed to quotas, easing tension over the season. “That’s certainly going to be good news from our perspective,” he said.
Last year, the tribe issued 575 licenses to its members, well above the state limit of 200, and that led to a confrontation between law enforcement officers and Passamaquoddy fishermen on the banks of the Pennamaquan River in Washington County.