Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Maine Attorney General Under Fire Over Elvers

Gale Courey Toensing
2/5/14

Maine’s Attorney General Janet Mills has been taken to task by Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission Chairwoman Jamie Bissonette Lewey for raising a questionable “constitutional concern” that could undermine an agreement between the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the state over elver fishing or even threaten to shut down the lucrative fishery altogether.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe, the state Department of Marine Resources and the legislature’s joint Marine Resources Committee are working on a proposed Memorandum of Agreement to resolve a controversy over how the tribe and state will issue elver fishing licenses and address a conservation order from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce the catch of the tiny translucent baby American eels for the 2014 fishing season. The commission has threatened to shut down the fishery if conservation measures are not taken.

On Jan. 29, Mills claimed that the proposed MOA would create an equal protection problem for non-Indians by making Indians a “special class” of people, who would be dealt with differently should legal conflict arise, the Bangor Daily News reported.

Jamie Bissonette Lewey, Chairperson of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission

“This is startling given that federal Indian law, the law that governs this state’s ‘special relationship’ with four sovereign nations, explicitly states that equal protection concerns apply differently to Indian tribes,” Bissonette Lewey said in an opinion piece in the Bangor Daily News. “The attorney general knows this yet chooses to advance an empty legal argument that will only serve to deepen enmity.”

The state’s four federally recognized sovereign Wabanaki nations are the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot Indian Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.

“Fishermen know that cutting bait is necessary preparation. And every fisherman knows there is a time when they must cut the line,” Bissonette Lewey continued. “The tribe, the department and the joint committee have worked hard to prepare a solution. Let’s hope that the actions of the attorney general do not force the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to ‘cut the line’ on Maine’s elver fishery.”

The attorney general’s office did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on Bissonette Lewey’s article.

The controversy over Maine’s elvers began last year when the Maine legislature passed LD (Legislative Document) 451, a law that criminalized the violation of state laws limiting the taking of elvers. The state was restricted by the ASMFC to issuing 744 elver fishing licenses last year. The Passamaquoddy Tribe issued 575 licenses to tribal members, putting the tribe out of compliance with the 200-license limit that the state had imposed on the tribe. The Passamaquoddy maintained that the state had no jurisdiction over the tribe’s inherent sustenance fishing rights or the number of licenses it issued. More than 60 tribal members were cited for having licenses above the limit, but the charges were later dismissed in court.

RELATED: Maine Governor Allegedly Threatens Wabanaki Nations over Elvers

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