AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee has proposed limiting the Passamaquoddy Tribe to issuing 200 elver licenses this year, with 50 of those restricted to dip-net users on the St. Croix River.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend that the Legislature approve an amended version of LD 451, which originally suggested limiting the Passamaquoddy Tribe to eight elver licenses.

The amended bill also would allow the Maine Department of Marine Resources to issue 25 additional licenses in the fishery for dip-net users only, and would allow the Houlton Band of Maliseets to issue 16 elver licenses — eight for dip nets and eight for fixed gear or fyke nets.

The bill is one of several proposed to the Legislature that would change the number of elver licenses that Maine’s four Indian tribes are allowed to issue to their members. The Maliseets currently are not permitted to issue any elver fishing licenses, the Micmacs and Penobscots are limited to eight apiece, and the Passamaquoddies can issue as many as they want.

There has been heightened interest in the fishery since 2011, when prices Maine fishermen earned for the juvenile American eels skyrocketed. The March 2011 Japanese tsunami wiped out aquaculture ponds where eels are raised to adult size, which led to the spike in demand.

The average price elver fishermen have earned shot up from around $188 per pound three years ago to nearly $2,000 per pound last year. Last month, DMR 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. Since 2006, DMR has limited the number of licenses it issues to 407.

During last year’s 10-week elver season, the Passamaquoddy Tribe caught state officials by surprise by issuing 236 elver licenses. Tribal officials have indicated to state authorities that they do not believe they should have to limit the number of licenses the tribe can issue.

There are concerns about the American eel population, however, which has led the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider listing the species under the Endangered Species Act. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has placed restrictions on Maine’s elver fishery, limiting the state to a maximum of 744 licenses and roughly 1,200 pieces of elver fishing gear, according to DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

Keliher told the Marine Resources Committee on Wednesday that DMR would prefer a limit for the Passamaquoddy Tribe of fewer than 200 licenses.

“We enter into this with hesitancy. It’s a compromise,” Keliher told the committee Wednesday. “There is a tremendous amount of interest from the nontribal interests [in Maine] to gain access to this fishery as well.”

Under the proposal endorsed Wednesday by the committee, 50 Passamaquoddy licenses would be restricted to hand-dip nets on the St Croix River while the other 150 could be used anywhere elver fishing is allowed in Maine. Of those 150, 26 would allow the holder to use up to two fyke nets. The remaining 124 would restrict the holder to either one hand-dip net or one fyke net.

Keliher said that one of his goals in reaching an agreement on how many total licenses DMR and Maine’s Indian tribes can issue is to send a message to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that Maine is serious about protecting the elver resource. He said he wants the number of licenses and permitted gear in Maine to stay well below commission limits. With the added licenses and permitted gear that LD 451 would allow, there would be fewer than 600 total licenses and roughly 750 permitted pieces of elver fishing gear in the state.

Keliher told legislators at a public hearing last week that DMR supported limiting all four Maine tribes to 100 total elver licenses. Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddies at Indian Township, told legislators that, if a limit has to be imposed, the tribe believes 300 just for the Passamaquoddies would be a fair number.

Socobasin added that the tribe has fished in what is now Maine for thousands of years and has always done so in a sustainable way.

“We feel we have an inherent right and a sovereign right,” Socobasin said. “With that comes a responsibility not to overfish.”

The proposed 200 license figure for the tribe, according to Keliher, would last for only the 2013 season — which is scheduled to begin March 22 — because the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is expected to set new management measures for the fishery by 2014. Keliher said he expects discussions with the tribes to continue throughout the summer.

Fred Moore, the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s former representative to the Legislature, told the committee that the tribe has adopted its own management measures that effectively will limit the amount of equipment that can go in the water. He said the tribe’s plan indicates that fixed-gear nets, also called fyke nets, cannot be placed within 30 feet of each other.

Moore said that the tribe’s plan applies to tribal members but does not restrict where in Maine tribal members can fish for elvers. He guessed that the tribe has between 15 and 20 officials certified to enforce tribal law, and added that the tribe would hope to work out an agreement with DMR to have DMR’s Marine Patrol help enforce the tribe’s rules.

Keliher said DMR will not enforce the tribe’s laws, not because it takes issue with the tribe’s management plan but simply because Maine Marine Patrol is charged with enforcing the state’s fishery laws, not those of any tribe or any other entity.

The committee held public hearings on Wednesday on other bills related to the elver fishery, but did not take action on them.

One of them, LD 604, would allow the Penobscot Tribe to issue 48 elver licenses to its members. Another, LD 497, would limit DMR to issuing elver licenses only for hand-held dip nets and would grant such licenses to any applicant who is a Maine resident and who has possessed an elver license in any two consecutive years since the start of the 1994 elver season.

Maine is one of only two states, the other being South Carolina, where elver fishing is allowed. South Carolina’s fishery is much smaller than Maine’s with only a few hundred pounds of elvers harvested statewide in 2012, according to DMR officials.

Last year, elver fishermen in Maine harvested more than 19,000 pounds of elvers, for which they cumulatively earned nearly $38 million, making it the second most valuable fishery in Maine behind the state’s $339 million lobster fishery.

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....