ELLSWORTH, Maine — A bill proposed by a Deer Isle legislator that would require state fishery officials to approve each individual tribal elver license in writing is being met with criticism from members of Maine’s four Indian tribes.

The bill, LD 1625, says that each individual tribal license would have to be filed at the commissioner’s office at the Maine Department of Marine Resources and that each tribal license holder would have to have “written confirmation of the validity of the license” in either a letter from the department or a form filled out by a marine patrol officer.

The proposal is an emergency bill, which could allow the law to go into effect before Maine’s 2014 elver season starts on March 22.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said the proposal is “extremely discriminatory” against Maine’s four recognized tribes — the Maliseets, Micmacs, Passamaquoddys and Penobscots. He said it infringes upon the right of the tribes, in agreement with the federal government, to self-determination and that it would unfairly criminalize people who have licenses that aren’t approved by DMR.

Francis also criticized a section of the bill that would require judges to impose a $2,000 fine on people found guilty of not having DMR-approved licenses. Unemployment among Maine’s tribes is relatively high compared to most other parts of Maine, he said, and mandating such high fines against people who have tribal licenses and not much other opportunity for earning an income seems especially unfair.

“The court [would have] no discretion over those fines,” Francis said. “It’s a real problem, this [proposed] law.”

The legislator who sponsored the bill, Walter Kumiega, a Democrat from Deer Isle, said the proposal is aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2013 elver season, during which DMR and the Passamaquoddy Tribe got into a heated dispute over the validity of licenses issued by the tribe.

The day before the 2013 season started, Gov. LePage signed into law a bill that limited the Passamaquoddys to 200 tribal elver licenses, but instead the tribe handed out 575 to its members. DMR responded by declaring all Passamaquoddy licenses over a certain number to be invalid. The dispute led to confrontations between DMR’s marine patrol and members of the tribe and resulted in dozens of tribal members being cited for fishing without valid licenses.

Kumiega said the bill is not meant to single out or to complicate compliance for any type of fisherman. The goal is to make sure DMR has the management tools to make sure it can effectively manage what has become a very lucrative and scrutinized fishery.

“We’re not trying to single out any group,” Kumiega said. “We need to have a manageable fishery and we don’t have that right now.”

Attempts Thursday to contact Passamaquoddy officials about the bill were unsuccessful.

Due to increased demand and decreased supply, the average price Maine elver fishermen have earned for the juvenile American eels has skyrocketed from $185 per pound in 2010 to above $1,500 per pound in each of the past two years.

At a Jan. 13 legislative hearing on the proposal, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher testified in support of the bill. He told the Marine Resources Committee that the bill would help “close loopholes” that inhibit the department’s ability “to effectively enforce and uphold” elver fishing restrictions.

In his testimony, Keliher specifically referred to the fact that more than 30 cases against Passamaquoddys who DMR accused last year of fishing with invalid licenses have been dropped by prosecutors in Penobscot, Hancock and Washington counties.

R. Christopher Almy, the district attorney in Penobscot County, dismissed about a dozen cases pending there against members of the tribe last November, saying he didn’t think it was fair to pursue charges against people who had licenses that appeared legitimate and who were caught up in a dispute between tribal and state officials. The following month, prosecutors in Hancock and Washington counties did the same thing with approximately two dozen other cases.

The bill, Keliher told the committee, would seek to resolve this jurisdictional limbo.

Francis said the bill is an “extreme overreaction” to the dismissals of the Passamaquoddy cases. In its focus on trying to satisfy the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has told Maine officials that it must reduce its 2014 statewide harvest by 25 to 40 percent, the state is putting unfair pressure on all the tribes, he said.

Plus, he added, the practice by all four tribes of setting an overall catch limit for their members is more effective than the state’s approach, which is to limit licenses, gear and season but not the overall amount that can be caught in any given year.

The Marine Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the bill, along with several others, on Jan. 22.

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Bill Trotter

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....