CALAIS, Maine — Imposing a catch limit is a better way of protecting the state’s elver population than limiting the number of licenses that may be issued to fishermen, Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point said Sunday at a press conference outside the Wabanaki Culture Center.
Tribal representatives said that limiting the catch to 3,600 pounds and allowing fishermen to use just one net was a better way to manage the resource than issuing a set number of licenses to tribal members.
“Fishing is part of our tradition,” Cleaves said. “It’s part of our religion.”
In a telephone interview after the press conference, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the tribe started talking about a quota-based system “very late” for it to be implemented this year.
“Conceptually, we’re not opposed to that, but for a successful quota-based system, you have to be able to monitor the harvesters and the dealers,” he said. “They’re not in control of the dealers.”
The press conference, which drew about 100 people to the Wabanaki Culture Center, was held in response to a statement Friday by Keliher that the tribe had put the state out of compliance with fishing restrictions imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission by issuing more than twice the number of elver licenses than it should have.
Keliher said that by issuing 575 licenses, the tribe has put Maine out of compliance with federal elver regulations.
“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 a total of 200 licenses.
For that reason, Keliher said Friday, the department is invalidating all but 150 of the 575 licenses issued by the Passamaquoddy 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.
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 Friday. 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.
Cleaves said at 2 p.m. Sunday that he had learned that, so far, three tribal members had been issued summonses.
“Arrest me instead of my people,” he said. “We gave them the right to go fish.”
Cleaves said that the tribe would challenge the summonses in court, all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, if necessary.
“They should be focused more on [working with state and federal authorities on a new plan] than on breaking the law,” the commissioner said.
The total number of summonses issued by the state was not available Sunday.
The chief said the tribe’s “conservation framework,” developed over the past 18 months by the Fisheries Advisory Committee, is superior to the state’s plan.
“Recently, the Passamaquoddy Tribe has been accused of placing the glass eel fishery in such extreme danger that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission might force the shutdown of the state’s glass eel fishery,” he said in an email announcing the press conference. “Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, the Passamaquoddy approach to the glass eel fishery is rooted in traditional knowledge of the species, an inherent and inalienable connection to the rivers and oceans that are the home of the Passamaquoddy people and of the ‘American eel,’ and a profound scientific understanding of the ecology of the watershed resulting in a strict conservation framework. This framework is superior to that of the state of Maine.”
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.
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.