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Tensions Rise Between State and Tribe over Elver Licenses
04/02/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills is weighing in on a dispute between the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the state over fisheries regulations. At issue are the number of elver fishing licenses issued by the state to tribal members. The state says the tribe has exceeded the limit. The tribe says it doesn't recognize the state's jurisdiction. And, in the meantime, the governor is threatening retaliation if tribal members don't follow state law. Susan Sharon has more.

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Recently, the Legislature gave the tribe permission to issue 200 elver harvesting licenses. Elvers are highly coveted baby eels that can fetch as much as $2,000 a pound on the commercial market. But Adrienne Bennett, the spokesperson for Gov. Paul LePage, says the tribe has issued 575 licenses.

"They are in violation of state law at this point in time and that is something that the governor is gravely concerned about," she says.

At the time the emergency legislation passed, tribal members did not raise the issue of tribal sovereignty. But one week into the elver fishing season, they did. They called a news conference Sunday to say they do not recognize the state's authority to limit their right to fish.

Attorney General Janet Mills says the question of tribal sovereignty over fishing rights has been raised before and settled by the courts. Mills says there is nothing in state or federal law that limits state jurisdiction over marine resources or that carves out a special exception for members of the tribe.

Crucial to the outcome, she says, is the historic 1980 Land Claims Settlement Act in which the tribe received federal recognition, land and money in return for complying with state laws governing natural resources.

"And with some minor exceptions, very small exceptions, that is the case. That's what the tribes agreed to. And this is - what's happening now is a complete contravention of the Settlement Act."

The tribe maintains that its own fisheries management plan is more protective of the resource than the state approach. The plan, which has been endorsed by the Joint Tribal Council, relies on a total allowable catch of 3,600 pounds, rather than a state licensing system. Once the catch is reached, the tribe says it would stop elver fishing entirely even if the season is not over.

But Gov. LePage is so upset with the tribe's position on the matter that he personally called tribal leaders Monday to make his own views clear. Passamaquoddy Council Member Newell Lewey was present for the conversation.

"He said, 'Chief Cleeves are you going to follow state law?' And Clayton calmly said, 'Governor, I'm sorry but I have a mandate from the Joint Tribal Council which I have to follow.' And LePage replied in an enraged and very demanding tone, 'You're kicking me in the head!'" Lewey says.

Lewey says the governor then threatened to pull support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he helped create to investigate the placement of Indian children in white, foster homes. Lewey says he also threatened to withdraw support for a proposed tribal casino in Washington County and to shut down the entire fishery, if necessary.

Adrienne Bennett says it's a difficult position for her boss, who previously signed an executive order to improve strained tribal-state relations. Tribal members say they have no plans to stop fishing no matter what the governor says or does. Fred Moore is the author of the Passamaquoddy's fisheries management plan.

"We've been attempting unsuccessfully to get the commissioner of Marine Resources to look at our plan as a better way to manage the resource," he says. "Unfortunately, it's come down to a situation where it really isn't about management of the resource for the state. It's about controlling the Passamaquoddies."

To illustrate that point, Newell Lewey says on Sunday night about 20 armed police officers accompanied by the marine resources commissioner challenged some tribal members who were fishing for elvers on a river in Pembroke. When several dozen other tribal members showed up, the police backed off.

No citations were issued at the time, but Lewey says it was clearly aimed at intimidating them and only served to inflame tensions. Elver fishing season lasts until the middle of May.


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