PORTLAND —  Passamaquoddy tribal leaders met Wednesday with Maine’s top fisheries official and two lawmakers to discuss their dispute over how many tribal members can fish for lucrative glass eels, but the two sides failed to resolve their differences.

State law allows the tribe to issue 200 licenses to catch the eels, known as elvers, which sell for up to $2,000 a pound. But tribal leaders issued more than 500 licenses, claiming the state doesn’t have authority over the tribe on fishing matters.

Passamaquoddy Vice-Chief Clayton Sockabasin and three other tribal members met with Marine Resources Commission Patrick Keliher, along with Sen. Christopher Johnson and Rep. Walter Kumiega, co-chairmen on the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.

Tensions have been high in recent days after Marine Patrol officers and state police confronted four tribal fishermen in eastern Maine and confiscated their gear Sunday. The following day, Gov. Paul LePage said he might shut down the fishery if the tribe didn’t follow state regulations.

Wednesday’s meeting didn’t resolve the dispute, but both sides cooperated and agreed to meet again, said tribal member Newell Lewey.

“It was a very positive meeting,” Lewey said. “We had some differences, but we’re moving forward.”

Keliher, Johnson and Kumiega could not be reached for comment.

Baby eels swim up Maine rivers each spring and are caught by hundreds of net-wielding fishermen during the 10-week season. Most of the catch is shipped to Asia, where the eels are raised in farm ponds to market size.

Before this year, there was no cap on how many eel-fishing licenses the Passamaquoddy Tribe could issue to its members. But with prices sky-high for the catch, the Legislature passed a law last month limiting the tribe to 200 licenses.

The state this year issued 432 licenses to non-tribal fishermen.

By ignoring state law and issuing more than 500 licenses, the Passamaquoddies are putting the entire fishery at risk, for both tribal and non-tribal fishermen, Keliher has said.

The Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, a Virginia-based agency that sets the overall standards for the eel fishery along the East Coast, has been monitoring what’s been going on in Maine, said ASMFC Executive Director Bob Beal.

To comply with the commission’s eel-management plan, Maine can have no more than 744 license holders with no more than 1,242 pieces of fishing gear, Beal said. With the Passamaquoddy Tribe issuing so many licenses, Maine appears to be exceeding those limits, he said.

“This is probably the most extreme example of conflict between tribal harvesters and non-tribal harvesters that I can remember in my 16 years here,” he said.

The tribe considers its eel-management plan to be superior to the state’s plan because it sets a maximum allowable catch, whereas the state puts a limit on licenses but not on how much can be harvested, said Lewey, the tribal spokesman.

Lewey further said the state doesn’t have authority over the tribe on fishing matters because the tribe never relinquished its fishing rights to the state.

That stance, however, conflicts with an opinion written last month by Attorney General Janet Mills.

In a letter to Keliher, Mills wrote that a reading of the statutes and the legislative history of the Indian Claims Settlement Acts led her to conclude that tribal members are subject to Maine’s regulatory authority over marine resources just like other Maine citizens.


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