The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s violation of state law by selling more than its allotted number of elver fishing licenses is jeopardizing Maine’s fisheries, economy and families, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Tuesday.

“The Passamaquoddy Tribe has indeed put the entire elver fishery at risk for Maine fishermen, but not due to the number of pounds of elvers they are landing,” Keliher said in a news release Tuesday.

He said a management plan established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission limits Maine to a designated number of licenses and pieces of gear, and the commission can shut down fisheries in non-compliant states — as Maine is now.

Under the management plan, Maine is limited to 744 licenses and 1,242 pieces of gear, Keliher said. The state has issued about 400 licenses for the lucrative baby eels this year and allocated 150 to the Passamaquoddies. But they have refused to abide by the limit, saying they have sold 525 licenses.

That “puts the state out of compliance with the license limitation, regardless of the actual pounds landed,” Keliher said.

He said officials must enforce state law to avoid possible closure of Maine’s second-most valuable fishery, behind lobster, which would hurt hundreds of Maine families and the economy.

The tribe has remained adamant that it has sovereignty over its elver fishery, and tension is mounting as the legal and cultural wrangling continues.

According to a legal opinion from Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, the tribe has no jurisdiction over elvers or any other saltwater fishery in the state.

The opinion, dated March 12 and released Tuesday by Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, says Maine law subjects Passamaquoddies, like any other residents or visitors, to the state’s regulatory authority over marine resources.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he is spending virtually all his time and energy trying to keep communication open with the Passamaquoddies and other tribes to find a solution.

“A lot of people’s safety is in jeopardy,” he said. “We’re dealing with people’s livelihoods.”

He said the tone of the political communication has not helped.

With tensions high, Alfond said, compromise and resolution will be difficult. “This one is going to be a test,” he said.

It’s important for the state to ensure the sustainability of the fishery, make sure no one gets hurt and comply with federal law, Alfond said.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee will meet Wednesday to consider an emergency bill addressing the crisis. Alfond said the measure could go to the Senate by Thursday.

Keliher, who requested the legislation, recommended criminalizing license violations or illegal catches and setting fines at a mandatory $2,000. He also has asked for a requirement that license holders provide photo identification so that officials can monitor use of the licenses and dealers can be certain who is selling to them.

He called on the committee to include in the measure that no cash transactions be allowed, and that landings data be made available to the Bureau of Marine Resources’ Marine Patrol.

Finding a solution acceptable to all sides will be no simple matter. The issues have been vigorously debated for decades without a lasting resolution.

The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act redefined the state’s relationship with its tribes in ways that are still a matter of contention, as evidenced by the differing interpretations on Passamaquoddy rights to harvesting elvers. 

Angry over their loss of tribal lands, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot leaders filed claims to roughly 60 percent of the land in Maine under the terms of a 1790 law that prohibited the transfer of Indian lands to non-Indians without congressional approval. 

More than 350,000 Maine residents lived on that land. President Jimmy Carter created a White House task force to look into the claims. Several years later, Congress approved and Carter signed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. It awarded $81.5 million to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes in exchange for the tribes giving up their claims to land.

As Mills noted in her legal opinion, the settlement and subsequent court decisions have upheld the state’s authority to impose marine fisheries regulations on the tribes.

In 1997, several Passamaquoddies defied the state’s fisheries regulations in a show of sovereignty and were charged by the state.

A year later, Gov. Angus King signed a measure to resolve the battle by awarding the tribe special licensing provisions for lobster, elvers and several other saltwater species. Last month, the Legislature removed that Passamaquoddy exception when it passed a bill limiting the tribe to 200 licenses. 

The Passamaquoddies’ decision to again exercise sovereignty rights has touched off standoffs — some close to physical confrontations, state officials have said — over authority in the marine fisheries and enforcement of state regulations.

The Passamaquoddies set a strict limit on catches by members, said Newell Lewey of Pembroke, a tribal council spokesman. The entire group of license holders cannot exceed 3,600 pounds — a ceiling the tribe has set to sustain the fishery, he said.

The tribe intends to stand firm on the issue of sovereignty, said Lewey, calling the emergency bill a way to single out the tribe for punishment.

Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said the Passamaquoddies’ unyielding position is a hurdle to progress on other matters of concern to the state and the tribe.

“It makes it very difficult (for the governor) to work with them … moving forward,” said Bennett. “That’s not saying he won’t be. But there are issues that need to be dealt with.”

Bennett did not elaborate on what the other issues might be.

She disputed the Passamaquoddies’ characterization of LePage’s manner and message in a telephone call Monday to Chief Clayton Cleaves.

Lewey, who was one of four witnesses who heard the call over a speaker, said LePage threatened reprisals against the tribe if its members did not comply with the state’s elver regulations.

That description matched one provided in a copy of a letter from Cleaves to Alfond, which was released by the tribe Tuesday.

The chief wrote that the governor was enraged and issued ultimatums. “There was no room for dialogue or continuation of communication about this matter,” Cleaves’ letter said.

“That is not a threat,” Bennett said. “That’s (the governor) speaking from the heart. He was gravely concerned — he was upset even.”

She said LePage, since taking office in 2011, had enjoyed a constructive relationship with the Passamaquoddy Tribe. “He would hate to see this issue jeopardize that relationship,” she said.

“They’re violating the law,” Bennett said, “and they’re the only tribe that is doing so.”

“I don’t know how it’s going to be resolved,” said Lewey of the tribal council. “But we’re going to go fishing.”

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

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