ELLSWORTH, Maine — A year after catching state officials off guard by issuing 236 elver fishing licenses in the middle of elver season, the Passamaquoddy Tribe has issued more than twice that amount for 2013.

And in so doing, the tribe has exceeded the limit set by state law, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. For that reason, Keliher said Friday, the department is invalidating all but 150 of the 575 licenses issued by the tribe.

“Each of those licenses are numbered, so we are going in order,” Keliher said. Any tribal license numbered 151 or higher will be considered void by Maine Marine Patrol, he said.

As a result, starting at noon Sunday, anyone caught using a Passamaquoddy license numbered 151 or higher will be summoned on a civil charge and have their gear confiscated by marine patrol, he said.

During the 10-week season, which runs from March 22 through May 31, fishing is not allowed from noon Saturday to noon Sunday or from noon Tuesday to noon Wednesday.

On Friday, DMR received from the Passamaquoddys a list of tribal licensees with 575 names on it — several hundred more than the limit set for the tribe by state law, according to department officials.

Keliher said that by issuing 575, the tribe has put Maine out of compliance with elver fishing restrictions imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

“The Passamaquoddys have jeopardized this entire fishery for the entire state,” Keliher said.

Keliher said that on March 21, the day before the start of Maine’s 10-week elver season, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law emergency legislation that limits the tribe to 200 licenses.

Messages left late Friday afternoon for Passamaquoddy officials at Pleasant Point and Indian Township, the tribe’s two communities in Washington County, were not returned. During public hearings earlier this month in Augusta, tribal officials opposed the 200-license limit.

The newly enacted state law indicates that 50 of the tribe’s 200 valid licenses must limit the license holder to using one hand-dip net only in the St. Croix River, Keliher said. However, none of the 575 issued by the tribe have this restriction. For that reason, he said, the department will allow the tribe to issue 50 more licenses with that restriction. When added to the 150 validated by DMR, that will bring the number of validated Passamaquoddy licenses to 200.

“This is their responsibility,” Keliher said of issuing the 50 new licenses restricted to the St. Croix.

Of the 150 licenses DMR plans to validate, Keliher said, 26 allow the holder to use up to two pieces of fishing gear, which is allowed by state law. The remainder allow the holder to use either one hand-dip net or one large, funnel-shaped fyke net, but not both. All but 26 of the 575 licenses issued by the tribe allowed the holder to use only one piece of gear, he said.

Interest in Maine’s elver fishery has dramatically increased in the past two years as prices for the juvenile American eels have skyrocketed. In 2010, elver fishermen in Maine cumulatively caught 3,100 pounds of elvers and were paid $585,000 total for their trouble. In 2012, Maine fishermen caught 19,000 pounds of elvers and were paid a total of nearly $38 million.

For individual fishermen, the soaring value of the fishery has been a windfall. In 2010, elver fishermen in Maine on average were paid $185 per pound for their catch. The average price rose to nearly $900 per pound in 2011 and last year kept rising to nearly $2,000 per pound.

Prices that dealers are offering fishermen so far this season range from $1,700 to $2,000 per pound, fishermen and state officials have said.

Maine and South Carolina are the only two states where fishing for the transparent or “glass” juvenile eels is allowed.

Maine’s other Indian tribes also lobbied the Legislature this past winter to increase the number of elver licenses they can issue to their members.

Previously, because of inconsistent state laws, the Penobscots, Maliseets and Micmacs each were limited to issuing only eight licenses apiece, but the Passamaquoddys could issue as many as they wanted.

Last year, the Passamaquoddys issued 236 elver licenses in early May. The move surprised state officials who for several years have limited the number of licenses issued in Maine in order to protect the resource and to try to discourage federal officials from imposing more strict conservation measures. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering additional conservation measures for American eels and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering listing the species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

From 2006 through 2012, DMR capped the number of elver licenses it issued to 407. Because Maine’s tribes sought approval this winter from the Legislature to increase the number of licenses they can issue, DMR sought and received similar approval to increase the number of licenses it issues by 25 to a total of 432.

With the new laws, the Penobscots are allowed 40, the Maliseets 16 and the Micmacs eight.

With all the new license limits approved by the Legislature, there now is a statewide limit of 696 licenses, including 200 for the Passamaquoddy Tribe. According to Keliher, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission restrictions allow no more than 744 licenses to be issued throughout the state.

Keliher said Maine’s other Indian tribes have not exceeded the new limits recently approved for them by the Legislature.

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....