PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Passamaquoddy Indians will keep fishing for lucrative glass eels in the state's coastal rivers despite a warning from the governor that he might shut down the fishery if the tribe doesn't follow state regulations, a tribal representative said Tuesday.
State officials say the tribe violated state law by issuing more than 500 licenses to catch the baby eels, known as elvers, which sell for up to $2,000 a pound. State law allows the tribe to issue only 200 licenses.
Gov. Paul LePage told Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves in a heated phone call Monday that he would withdraw all support for the tribe and possibly shut down the fishery if the tribe didn't follow state law, Tribal Council member Newell Lewey said.
The state doesn't have authority over the tribe on fishing matters because the tribe never relinquished its fishing rights, Lewey maintained. Furthermore, the tribe considers its fishing regulations more conservation-minded than state regulations because the tribe sets a maximum allowable catch while the state puts a limit on licenses but not on how much can be harvested, he said.
Tribal members are going to keep fishing even after Marine Patrol officers and state police confronted four tribal fishermen Sunday night in eastern Maine and seized their fishing gear and after LePage delivered what tribal members considered to be a threat, Lewey said.
"I have no control over the state. They can do whatever they want," Lewey said. "They can come in and raid and ticket and confiscate gear. The tribe has no control over that. But we're also going to do what we need to do."
The tribe is putting the entire fishery at risk because the number of Maine licenses now exceeds the limit established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the fishery on the East Coast, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a statement. The state is obligated to enforce state law and to remain compliant with the license limit, he said.
"Closure of the second-largest fishery would have a significant and detrimental impact on hundreds of Maine families, Maine people, and the economy at large," Keliher said.
The transparent baby eels, about 2 to 4 inches long, swim up Maine rivers each spring and are caught by hundreds of fishermen who line the riverbanks with nets during the 10-week season, which ends May 31. Most of the catch is shipped to Asia, where the eels are raised in farm ponds to market size and then are sold to retailers and restaurants.
Before this year, there was no cap on how many eel-fishing licenses the Passamaquoddy Tribe could issue to its members.
In 2011, the tribe issued only two licenses. But that number climbed to 236 licenses last year after eel prices soared. Last year's catch was valued at $38 million, making it the second most valuable fishery in Maine, behind lobsters.
In response to the growing fishing pressure, the Legislature last month passed a law authorizing the tribe to issue up to 200 elver harvesting licenses. Non-tribal fishermen were issued 432 licenses.
But the tribe dispensed more than 500 licenses to tribal members, who travel along the state's jagged coast to catch the eels.
The Department of Marine Resources last week invalidated all but 150 of those licenses. By issuing so many licenses, the tribe was putting Maine out of compliance with federal elver fishing regulations, Keliher said Friday.
On Sunday night, Marine Patrol officers, accompanied by Keliher and state police, confronted Passamaquoddy tribal members fishing on the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke and confiscated their gear because their licenses were invalid.
Lewey said tensions were high when 20 or so armed law enforcement officers swooped in in a show of force.
In a statement Monday, the department said it will continue to enforce state law to "protect the resource as well as public safety." The tribe, the statement said, "has chosen to ignore the law and issue licenses that are invalid."
LePage entered the fray on Monday, when he called Cleaves, the Passamaquoddy chief, to discuss the issue. Cleaves used a speaker phone so Lewey and three other tribal members in his office could hear what the governor had to say, Lewey said.
The call lasted a minute or less, with LePage speaking in a "loud, enraged and demanding tone" after Cleaves told him tribal fishermen would follow tribal fishing regulations, not those set by the state, Lewey said. LePage then said he would withdraw his support for the tribe, for a commission that was created to investigate systematic removal of tribal children from their households prior to 1978 and for any potential casino proposal in Washington County, Lewey said.
"He also threatened to shut down the entire fishery," Lewey said.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said LePage has tried to improve relations with Maine's tribes but the Passamaquoddy Tribe is putting the state elver fishery at risk.
"The governor would hate to see this issue jeopardize that relationship," she said. "But with that said, three of the four tribes in Maine are in compliance with this law while the Passamaquoddy Tribe has issued more than double the number of licenses the Legislature authorized."