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Maine Elver License Dispute with Tribe Escalates
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 those numbers. The tribe says it doesn't recognize the state's jurisdiction. Susan Sharon has more.

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In her opinion dated March 12, Mills writes that there is nothing in state or federal law that restricts state jurisdiction over marine resources, or that would carve out an exception for tribal members.

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.

But Adrienne Bennett, the communication director 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," Bennett says.

In fact, the governor got so upset with the tribe's position on the matter, that Passamaquoddy tribal member Newell Lewey says that in a short telephone conversation with him, the chief and several other tribal members Monday, LePage threatened to withdraw support for several tribal initiatives.

"He said, 'Chief Cleeves are you going to follow state law?' And Clayton just 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 a very enraged and 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 bill to establish a tribal casino in Washington County.

Bennett says the governor, who signed an executive order to improve tribal relations, believes the assertion of tribal sovereignty over fishing rights will make it difficult to move forward. For its part, Lewey says the tribe believes it has a better strategy for managing the fishery, one that will rely on a quota system for the short elver season rather than a state licensing system.

"The state could catch a million pounds and they're telling us that we're not being conservative. And they have no conservation measures in their plan," Lewey says. "They think that limiting licenses is conservation. It's not."

On Sunday night, Lewey says about 20 armed police officers, accompanied by the Marine Resources commissioner, challenged some tribal members who were fishing for elvers in Pembroke. No citations were issued, but Lewey says it was clearly aimed at intimidating them and only served to inflame tensions.

Lewey says tribal leaders are now looking for ways to peacefully resolve the matter with the state. Lewey says there had been some suggestion that the governor might call in the National Guard for help. His spokeswoman says that is not the case.

Elver fishing season lasts until the middle of May.

File photo by Patty Wight.


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