ELLSWORTH — Gov. Paul LePage issued an ultimatum to the Passamaquoddy tribe Monday morning: Play by the state’s fishing rules or face consequences from his office, tribal officials said.
According to a Passamaquoddy official who sat in on a phone call from the governor, LePage threatened to withdraw support for issues of importance to the Passamaquoddy — including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the possibility of a casino in Washington County — during a brief call with tribal leaders Monday morning.
Newell Lewey, a member of the Tribal Council, said he and several others sat in on the call, which LePage made to Chief Clayton Cleaves. LePage told the tribe he’d make good on those threats if they didn’t stand down on their claim to authority over tribal members’ right to harvest elvers.
“Gov. LePage also threatened he would shut down the entire fishery,” Lewey said Monday evening, quoting a letter sent by the tribe to Senate President Justin Alfond, informing him about the phone call.
Lewey said there was no mistaking LePage’s intent or anger, describing the governor’s message as “loud, enraged and demanding.”
“He’s going to try to hold us hostage, that’s what he’s going to do,” Lewey said. “I was in there. I heard it. I heard his tone. There was no mistake.”
Repeated efforts to contact LePage’s press secretary this week have been unsuccessful. Efforts to reach Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher also have been unsuccessful.
Rumors also swirled in Augusta on Monday that LePage had threatened to call the National Guard to help enforce the state’s rules on elver harvesting, though that threat has not been confirmed.
For its part, the Passamaquoddy say they aren’t backing down. Lewey said that even if he wanted to, the chief couldn’t back down because the Joint Tribal Council — which represents Passamaquoddys in Indian Township and Pleasant Point — had already spoken.
“The chief of the tribe is acting on a Joint Council Resolution, shaped by the people of the tribe, and the council voted unanimously, all 12 council members, to support the elver fisheries management plan,” he said. “The chief cannot override that.”
The dispute began last week when DMR announced that it would invalidate all but 150 of the 575 elver licenses issued by the tribe. A new state law limits the number of elver permits available to the Passamaquoddy to 200 — 150 permits to set fyke nets anywhere in the state and 50 permits to use dip-nets in the St. Croix River.
Keliher said the Passamaquoddy had put the state out of compliance with rules imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Enforcement of the law began March 31, and Keliher said any Passamaquoddy fishing with a permit number higher than 150 would be issued a summons and have their nets confiscated.
On Sunday night, there was a confrontation between tribal leaders, backed up by a crowd of Passamaquoddys, and Marine Patrol in Pembroke. State police were called to backup DMR’s effort to enforce its rules and, ultimately, Keliher, who was on scene during the incident, agreed to hold off on issuing summonses, but nets were still confiscated.
Keliher later told legislators in Augusta that the police involved in the Sunday incident had become fearful for their safety due to the number of Passamaquoddy protesting their action.
At least three summonses have been issued to tribal fishermen, though DMR has not returned calls for comment, so the total number of summonses issued is unknown.
Fred Moore III, a former Passamaquoddy representative to Augusta and a member of the tribe’s fisheries committee, said attempts to strip indigenous fishing rights would only result in more tribal fishing.
“They can come and take a couple of us to jail, and 300 more will join in.” he said Monday.
The sovereignty dispute has grown hotter by the day, with the Passamaquoddy attacking the state’s elver management plan and touting the superiority of its own conservation techniques.
Lewy said the state’s effort to protect the elver population by limiting the number of licenses was inferior to the tribal management plan, which instead sets a total allowable catch limit of 3,600 pounds.
“The idea that we have jeopardized the entire fishery for the state is an outright lie,” Lewey said Monday night. “He [Keliher] keeps coming back to that number, that 150 or 200 licenses, but it doesn’t really matter because at 3,600 pounds, we’re shutting down, whether we reach that in early April or mid-May.”
On Monday, the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee said a bill aimed at tightening elver rules and creating steeper fines ought to pass, as amended.
The bill, LD 632, would make second and subsequent elver license violations a criminal rather than civil offense; make a $2,000 fine for violations mandatory; create a mechanism to seize any elver catch that contains illegal harvested elvers; make “assisting in illegal harvesting of elvers” a civil offense; and require that a license holder be able to furnish a photo ID before selling his catch.