Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Elvers are prized by Maine tribes for both their price and their cultural value.

Passamaquoddy Tribe Amends Fishery Law to Protect Its Citizens From State Threat

Gale Courey Toensing
4/8/14

The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s fishery law has been amended to implement individual catch quotas for the lucrative elver season that began on April 5. While the quota system conforms to a new state law, Passamaquoddy leaders stressed that the change was made to both protect tribal citizens and conserve the tiny baby eels.

“We’re changing our tribal fishery law, and I’m not addressing state law at all,” Newell Lewey, a member of the Tribal Council and the tribe’s Fisheries Committee, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We amended our laws to reflect individual catch quotas. We didn’t want conflict. We vehemently disagree with the state in their approach to elver fishing.”

The decision to amend the tribe’s fishing law comes after a roller-coaster legislative session that started out with high hopes that the tribe and state would reach an agreement over elvers fishing after a rancorous season last year. In 2013, state law enforcement agents had confiscated equipment from about 60 Passamaquoddy fishermen and charged them with various violations that were later tossed out of court. The controversy centered on the number of licenses issued. While the tribe issued more licenses than the state permitted, it placed a limit on the total number of pounds that tribal members could catch, which is the basis of the tribe’s conservation plan. The state, in contrast, limited the number of licenses but allowed unlimited caches by individuals or commercial fishing entities.

Elvers have been important to the state only since 2011, when prices for the tiny “glass eels” increased tenfold, from about $185 per pound in 2010—when the statewide harvest was less than $600,000—to more than $1,850 per pound in 2012, when the statewide harvest was worth more than $38 million.

This year, as part of a conservation plan to reduce the overall elvers catch mandated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Passamaquoddy and the other three Wabanaki tribes—the Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac—hammered out a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the state Department of Marine Resources that would have met the commission’s conservation goal to while respecting the tribes’ inherent rights to sustenance hunting and fishing as affirmed in treaties such as the Maine Indian Claims Settlement act of 1980.

The state this year also caught up to the Passamaquoddy’s traditional knowledge and practice of conservation, agreeing in the proposed MOA to a 35 percent cut to the 2013 total of 18,000 pounds. This brought the 2014 allowable catch to 11,750 pounds and limited the number of pounds caught by individual non-tribal license holders. The tribe agreed to reduce its total catch this year by more than 50 percent, from 3,600 to 1,650 pounds, without placing quotas on individual members, because it believes that all members have an equal right to fish. The tribe also agreed that members would use only dip nets, not the large, funnel-shaped fyke nets that large numbers of elvers swim into. The Passamaquoddy also agreed that members would participate in a statewide program to use swipe cards when they sell their catch.

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