Leslie Bowman/Island Journal
Mikoo Mendoza checks his net for eels while his mother, Veronica Sapiel, dips into the waters of the St. Croix River in spring 2013.

The Old Ways Win Again: Fishing and the Wisdom of the Elders

Paul Molyneaux, Island Journal

On a moonless November night, the rain-swollen St. Croix River flows unseen through the forests of eastern Maine and western New Brunswick. The river passes through the darkness almost by feel, and dozens of female American eels—silver eels, as they are called—snake along the bottom with the current, their noses toward the sea.

The American eels—Anguilla rostrata—are catadromous, meaning that they live in fresh and brackish water, and spawn in the open ocean. On the St. Croix, their journey of a thousand miles begins with running a gauntlet of hydroelectric turbines at the Grand Falls and Woodland dams, and finally Milltown, where the lights of the New Brunswick (NB) Power generating station cut open the night. The dam there forces the entire volume of the St. Croix River, over 200 tons of water an hour, through three generating units with dozens of blades spinning at up to 200 rpms. The eels, driven by the equally powerful need to reach salt water, swim heedlessly into the suction of the turbines that may cut them to pieces.

Fifty miles to the west, luckier eels pass unmolested through the torrent of Bad Little Falls on the Machias River. Above the falls, on this drizzling November night, the Passamaquoddy tribe’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) holds a public meeting on the campus of the University of Maine at Machias.

Fred Moore III waits for sunrise as the full moon sets behind him at Pleasant Point Reservation on Passamaquoddy Bay. (Photo: Leslie Bowman)

In a warm, well-lit auditorium, Denise Altvater tells a very personal story of how the State once systematically removed children like her from their homes at the Pleasant Point Indian reservation known as Sipay’k to the Passamaquoddy people, justifying the action as a way to improve their educational and economic plight.

“I was only five years old, and had hardly been off the reservation,” she says. “Imagine how it felt when these cars full of strangers drove in and they took me and my sisters and put us in those cars. My parents could do nothing.”

Altvater describes 10 years of abuse in those homes: beatings, hunger, and later, rape, before being returned to her reservation home at age 15.

Esther Altvater Attean, co-direc
tor of the TRC, offers a litany of atroc
ities perpetrated against her people,
 reminding the primarily white audience 
that the ground the university stands on was taken from her tribe.

“Ninety percent of our people were wiped out,” Attean says.

The Passamaquoddy and other indigenous people happened to be in between a new world order and the natural resources it needed. What might be called a culture of depletion has eclipsed an indigenous culture of respect. Though less tragic than seizing children from their parents, the conflict between Native values and an expanding colonial economy also left the tribe a victim, many Passamaquoddy members believe.

An Ongoing Tradition of Fishing

Shell middens along the St. Croix bear testimony to millennia of healthy fisheries that preceded Samuel Champlain’s sailing up the St. Croix in 1604 to establish the French colony, Acadia. My own grandfather 11 generations back, Charles de la Tour, arrived in the region with Acadia’s new governor de Poutrincourt in 1606. After two years living with the Mi’kmaq, he built forts at what are now St. John, New Brunswick and Castine, where his company traded guns and steel for furs. He spoke the local Native languages.

But he also helped to introduce the tribes to European diseases, inadvertently, and deliberately, to the European economic system, which relied on the plunder of fisheries and forests, and on the often-violent reallocation of resource access to the wielders of the most advanced technology.

“I call it ‘privileged exploitation,’ ” said Fred Moore III, a member of the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Advisory Committee.

Non-Native fishing communities on the coast also have felt at least some of the bite of this system. In the last half century, weir fishermen lost the herring fishery to purse seiners, who lost it to mid-water trawlers. When resources decline and fishing cultures are reduced to exhibits in shore-side museums, the prevailing narrative calls it progress. Aside from lobster, however, Maine has progressed steadily down the road of fisheries decline.

In rural Downeast fishing communities, many fishermen once eked out a living by scalloping, harvesting sea urchins, picking periwinkles and clamming. They fished for cod, haddock, pollock and mackerel within sight of their homes, and herring weirs dotted the coastline. On a local level, all of those enterprises have disappeared or are slipping toward economic and cultural irrelevance.

State management plans, usually based on free-market theory and the mantra “Too many fishermen, too few fish,” have not given adequate consideration to habitat issues, while permitting unsustainable harvest levels and the consolidation of resource access into the hands of fewer and fewer players. Landings in all of the important inshore fisheries, aside from lobster, have either declined or plummeted. Like the Passamaquoddy, cod have lost over 90 percent of their populations.

The Passamaquoddy occupy the oldest fishing community on the coast of Maine—thousands of years older than any other—and many members of the tribe believe survival depends on direct access to resources, along with the culturally relevant knowledge of how and when to use them.

“The name Passamaquoddy means, ‘People who spear pollock,’ ” said Moore, who also is the primary author of the tribe’s newly developed fisheries management plan. “It’s who we are. We are inextricably tied to the sea.”

The Passamaquoddy fisheries plan aims to restore habitat, harvest seafood responsibly, and broaden fisheries access; it includes specific management plans for many species. Scallops, lobster, groundfish, alewives and the lucrative elver fishery all play a role in the future health of a fishing community thousands of years older than the state.

“Our cultural norms are codified in our plan,” said Moore. “We don’t exploit resources; we utilize them.”

RELATED: Passamaquoddy Nation Seeks to Free Alewives on St. Croix River

For Moore, change does not mean going back in time, nor does he plan to assimilate. Looking for a way to provide a future for his children and the tribe, Moore is training his sons and other tribal members as lobstermen, and moving toward getting scallop boats offshore. His management plans continue to take shape, garnering input from elders and the fisheries advisory council. Among other things, he has proposed reducing the trap limit for the tribe’s lobstermen and increasing the number of lobster licenses the tribe issues.


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