ELLSWORTH, Maine — A last-minute bid by the Passamaquoddy Tribe to avoid a requirement to impose individual catch quotas on its licensed elver fishermen has come up short.

Rep. Madonna Soctomah, the tribe’s representative in the Legislature, proposed an emergency bill that would have allowed legislators to consider whether the tribe should adhere to one tribal catch quota for elvers instead of setting individual quotas for each of its members.

The Legislative Council, 10 legislative leaders who decide which proposed bills can move forward for consideration during the shorter second session, on Thursday rejected Soctomah’s proposal, according to council staff. The rejection means that the Passamaquoddys and Maine’s three other federally recognized Indian groups will have to assign individual quotas to their licensed members if they want to receive required electronic transaction cards from the state.

Newell Lewey, a Passamaquoddy tribal council member at Pleasant Point, said Thursday evening that the vote in Augusta was not a surprise. What avenue the tribe might pursue next is the “1,600 pound question,” he said, referring to the tribe’s expected overall quota for this year.

Lewey said the Passamaquoddy’s joint tribal council, which includes elected tribal officials from Pleasant Point and Indian Township, is expected to meet at 10 a.m. Friday, March 28, to discuss the matter.

“Everything is on the table,” including individual quotas, Lewey said of options the tribe may consider.

Due to concerns about the impact on the population of American eels from Maine’s elver fishery — the only such fishery on the East Coast that nets any significant amount of the newborn eels — Maine, for the first time ever, has imposed individual quotas on elver fishermen. This also is the first year that fishermen, tribal and nontribal alike, will be required to use state-issued transaction cards each and every time they sell their catch.

If a fisherman does not have a personal swipe card issued to them by Maine Department of Marine Resources, he or she will not be permitted to catch, possess or sell the baby eels, according to state officials. Maine’s statutory elver season is expected to start on April 6, more than two weeks later than its usual March 22 opening date.

Interest in the fishery has soared since 2011, when demand in Asia for the juvenile eels skyrocketed. Elver fishermen in Maine were paid an average of $185 per pound in 2010 and nearly $900 per pound the following year. Since then, the average price Maine fishermen have earned for elvers has increased to more than $1,800 per pound.

The overall value of Maine’s elver landings in 2013, which was divided among fewer than 1,000 licensed fishermen, is estimated to be just shy of $33 million.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, said Thursday prior to the council vote that the Penobscots support the Passamaquoddys’ efforts to be exempt from the individual quota mandate. He said that Maine’s tribes have never imposed individual catch quotas on their members in any fishery.

“It’s about equal access for everyone,” Francis said. “There’s no equitable way to [come up with individual quotas]. It seems to go against our cultural traditions.”

Francis said that, between the elver issue and casino proposals, the tribes have been increasingly frustrated with the responses they have been getting lately from the Legislature. He said he would not be surprised if the elver issue, which the tribes say should be theirs to regulate in accordance with federal law, ended up being resolved in court.

“Continuing to go back to the Legislature is the definition of insanity for these tribal issues,” Francis said. “I think [a federal lawsuit] is a real possibility. It’s too bad because I think there are other ways to solve this.”

Department of Marine Resources officials also have said that the issue likely can only be resolved in federal court.

The state was close to reaching an agreement with the Passamaquoddys, but legal concerns raised by the Maine office of the attorney general scuttled the deal. Indian officials in Maine have been highly critical of the attorney general’s position and have accused the state office of being biased against the tribes.

In the meantime, state officials say they have worked out individual catch limits for each of Maine’s 436 licensed nontribal elver fishermen by using each fisherman’s two best annual catch totals between 2011 and 2013.

Each person’s 2014 quota has been determined by deducting 41.8 percent from the average of that person’s two best years. No harvester will have an individual, season-long quota of less than four pounds, state officials indicated Tuesday in a news release.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has said Maine must reduce its annual elver harvest and, for the 2014 season, catch no more than 11,749 pounds statewide. To prevent an overrun of that statewide quota, Department of Marine Resources plans to bring fishing to a halt when the statewide tally gets within 5 percent of that limit.

With that buffer, nontribal fishermen will be limited to a cumulative quota of 8,710 pounds and fishermen in Maine’s four federally recognized tribes — which also include the Maliseets and Micmacs — will be limited to a total of 2,453 pounds.

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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....