AUGUSTA, Maine — The top fisheries regulator in Maine told legislators Wednesday that the state would like to limit the four native Indian tribes in the state to 100 total elver fishing licenses for this year — less than half of the total amount that one tribe issued to its members in 2012.

Leaders of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which issued more than 200 licenses to its members last spring, told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee that they oppose this limit. Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, urged the committee on Wednesday to delay implementing any limits on tribal elver licenses until 2014, after the 2013 elver fishing season.

“We need more time,” Cleaves told the committee during a packed public hearing in Augusta. “This is a very delicate and serious matter.”

At issue is the state’s newly lucrative elver fishery, which over the past two years has become one of the most valuable commercial fisheries in Maine, second only to the state’s $339 million lobster industry.

As the average price elver fishermen have earned has shot up from around $188 per pound three years ago to nearly $2,000 per pound last year, people have clamored for ways to get into the fishery. Last month, Maine Department of Marine Resources held a lottery for elver licenses that were not renewed by prior license holders. Only four licenses were available, yet more than 5,000 people applied for the chance to win a license.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing American eels under the Endangered Species Act, which has made DMR officials wary about increasing the number of licenses or fishing gear it permits in the fishery. Since 2006, the state has issued only 407 elver licenses statewide.

But last spring, more than six weeks into the 10-week elver season, the Passamaquoddy Tribe caught state officials and others off guard when it issued 236 licenses to its members. Two other Native American groups in Maine — the Penobscots and Micmacs — each are limited by state law to issuing eight elver licenses a year, but the Passamaquoddies face no such legal limit.

Before 2012, the tribe issued only a handful of licenses to its members, DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher told the committee.

Since the 2012 season closed at the end of May, DMR and Passamaquoddy officials have been in discussions to see if they might reach a compromise on the maximum number of licenses the tribe can issue each year. DMR officials introduced a bill, LD 451, to also limit the tribe to eight licenses but have publicly acknowledged while in negotiations with tribal officials that eight was too few.

On Wednesday, during a public hearing on LD 451, Keliher told legislators that DMR would like to limit each of the four recognized native tribes in Maine to 25 licenses apiece, including the Maliseets, who currently do not have authority to issue any elver licenses.

He said that if the tribes would like, they can work out among themselves how much of those 100 total licenses each tribe gets, but that DMR wants an overall limit of 100 licenses for the four tribes.

Keliher said he would like the Legislature to consider passing the bill as emergency legislation in order to avoid confusion during the approaching 2013 elver season, which is scheduled to begin in about two weeks on March 22. He added that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has established a management plan for elver fishing and that if Maine does not comply with that plan, it could jeopardize the fishery for everybody.

“I do not believe this fishery needs to be shut down,” Keliher said. “My main goal here today is to make sure Maine remains compliant with the ASMFC management plan.”

Cleaves countered that if the issue is about conserving elvers, then allowing the Passamaquoddies to have unlimited licenses shouldn’t be a problem. More than 19,000 pounds of elvers were harvested in Maine in 2012, up from 8,500 in 2011 (according to Keliher, there are approximately 2,500 elvers in a pound). Of those 19,000 pounds, only 800 were harvested by Passamaquoddy fishermen, Cleaves said.

“You tell me who is overharvesting,” Cleaves told the committee.

The Pleasant Point tribal chief added that Passamaquoddies never gave up their rights to hunt or fish and have always been concerned with protecting the natural resources they use. He added that tribal members need to have economic opportunities by which they can support themselves and their families.

“I believe welfare is the root of all evil,” Cleaves told the committee. “We need jobs.”

Some tribal supporters said that the effort to limit all tribes in Maine to 100 total elver licenses was a sign of anti-Indian bias.

Supporters of LD 451 countered that the issue is not about race, but instead is about protecting the resource and giving everybody the same, albeit remote, chance of getting a license.

Julie King of Trescott, who said she supported the bill, said that she doesn’t mind sharing the resource with the native tribes but added she is concerned about letting too many people into the fishery. She said that last spring, after the tribe issued the 236 licenses, she saw about 50 or 60 people hand-dipping for elvers by the Penobscot Salmon Club in Brewer, which she considers too many.

“We have tried so hard to keep the federal government from shutting us down,” King said.

Some Passamaquoddy supporters, including members of other tribes, said that the proper avenue for reaching an agreement between DMR and the tribe is through the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, not the Marine Resources Committee.

A work session on the bill, at which point members of the committee will discuss the merits of the bill, of the testimony provided Wednesday, and other relevant information they received, has not yet been scheduled.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....