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Maine at Odds with Tribes Over Elver Rules
02/14/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Work continues on the crafting of new regulations for this year's elver season.  But the state is at an impasse with Maine's Indian tribes over how those rules will be applied. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maine at Odds with Tribes Over Elver Rules
Originally Aired: 2/14/2014 5:30 PM
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The lucrative eel harvest has been a cash cow for some fishermen, who have been paid up to $2,000 a pound for the young eels, which are a delicacy in Asian markets.

But regulators say it's time to address conservation of the resources, and the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee is in the process of crafting new regs aimed at doing just that.  DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher says he'd like to see individual catch quotas for each licensed fisherman, but some tribal members favor a different approach, which would establish a statewide quota, and assign the tribes a percentage of that overall amount.

Keliher says the Maine Attorney General's Office is concerned that could violate the equal protection clause of the state Constitution.
"How are you going to allow the tribes to have a total allowable catch, but not worry about an individual allocation, because the non-tribal fishermen would like the individual allocation," Keliher said.
 
For some tribal leaders, the elver issue is another example in an ongoing dispute over tribal sovereign rights. During earlier public hearings on the elver bill before the Marine Resources Committee, tribal governors and chiefs have said the issue underscores the flaws in the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act that restrict their ability to self-govern, and that limit their inherent sovereignty. Madonna Soctohmah is the legislative representative for the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

"If it is a fact a treaty matter that has not been resolved under the Settlement Act, then the three parties the state, federal and tribal government need to come to a table in a manner to resolve the issue, not the way the tribal people are being used in addressing that issue," Soctohmah said. "It just makes the hard feelings between the tribal people and the state people and I don't think that's a mechanism that's a healthy one."

Keliher says the elver fishery in Maine - with a harvest last year of just over 18,000 pounds valued at nearly $40 million - is under increasing pressure from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce its catch by 35 percent to help conserve the resource.

New quotas and a swipe card verification system aimed at discouraging the importation of poached eels from out of state for sale in Maine are among the new regulations favored by the Department of Marine Resources. Although the commission recently approved a statewide catch quota for Maine rather than a limit on individual licenses,  Keliher hopes legislators here in Maine will strongly support a uniform quota for each and every fisherman.

"I think the Marine Resources committee is definitely leaning in the direction of putting a single set of rules in place for all fishermen - tribal and non-tribal -- that resolves all the potential enforcement issues that we'll have," he said. "It will be a wait-and-see whether the tribes make a determination that there is still disagreement."

State Sen. Christopher Johnson, the Democratic co-chair of the legislative panel, says while the members of his panel hold different opinions on approach, there is a fundamental belief that Maine law needs to be respected by all fishermen and enforced appropriately. But he acknowledges that there are lawmakers who believe there is room for discretion in implementing the rules,  and that those decisions must be made with consideration to the tribes.

The Marine Resources Committee is scheduled to renew their wo
rk on the elver bill next Wednesday. 

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