For second year in a row, bid for tribal casino blocked in Maine Senate

By Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would have allowed Maine’s Native American tribes to open and operate a casino in Washington or Aroostook County died Monday in the Senate by a vote of 18-16.

The Senate’s vote contradicts a 114-26 House vote last Thursday in favor of the bill, which was written by the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The two chambers of the Legislature are now at odds on the bill, which means it faces more votes but won’t be successful without attracting additional support

The bill, LD 1446, would have allowed a competitive bidding process followed by the development of a casino in Washington or Aroostook county. Bids would have been weighed depending on to what degree they would benefit Maine’s four federally recognized Indian tribes.

Rep. Henry John Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseets said Monday that given the close Senate vote against it, he is still hopeful that the bill will survive.

“I’ll be hopeful that maybe we can work an amendment and that we can find something that’s acceptable to the Senate,” said Bear, who is the only tribal representative left in the Maine Legislature since the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes pulled their representatives out of the Legislature in May.

That decision was driven by clashes over fishing rights, judicial jurisdiction and environmental conflicts, though the fact that Maine has not allowed the tribes to operate a casino — and benefit from the revenues — has been a sore spot for tribal-state relations for years. In 2014, a group of six gaming bills — three of them which would have benefitted the tribes — were all killed in a single night in the Senate.

The tribes and other casino proponents thought an opening for gaming expansion was created last year with the release of a market study that suggested the state could support one or two more casinos.

“This bill is not a bill that has come out of this legislative session,” said Bear. “This is a bill that has been in the works for decades in a continued effort to try to create jobs in a region that’s the poorest of the state.”

Meanwhile, another casino bill, LD 1280, is still awaiting debate and votes in the House and Senate. As currently written, that bill would allow for a casino in Cumberland or York County.

Maine American Indians, fishing for millennia, regroup as latest effort for state pact fades

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press

BANGOR, Maine (AP) — Marie Harnois stands on the banks of the Penobscot River at dusk, swirling a dip net under the water, fishing for eels — something her ancestors in the Passamaquoddy tribe have done for thousands of years.

Fishing has been a way of life for Maine’s American Indians since time immemorial — “Passamaquoddy” is derived from a word that means “the people who spear pollock” — and Harnois thinks it’s past time the state government’s regulators came to the table to share management of fisheries with the tribes.

“I think the tribe should be able to set their standards however they want,” she said, alongside sisters Fawn and Eva, as she emptied wriggling baby eels into a bucket. “They’re perfectly capable of managing resources.”

Like Harnois, members of Maine’s four federally recognized American Indian tribes are regrouping just as a tribal effort to forge a fishery management pact with state regulators is faltering. The tribes proposed an ambitious bill that called for regulators and tribes to craft “memorandums of agreement” about managing marine resources.

The bill, which stemmed from recent squabbles the tribes have had with regulators about quotas and gear used in the lucrative baby eel fishery, was soundly rejected by a key state legislative committee in May, and it appears unlikely to pass if it reaches the full Legislature.

But former Passamaquoddy tribe legislative Representative Matthew Dana, who sponsored the bill and withdrew from his seat in protest last week, said he is hopeful the tribe and state can still reach agreement without passing a law. The tribes feel as though the state is preventing them from beginning an era of cooperation with a government regulatory structure with which they have frequently been at loggerheads, he said.

“I thought this was going to go somewhere, and obviously it did not,” Dana said. “We’re trying to keep the lines of communication open and hopefully meet before the start of the season next year.”

There are about 8,000 Maine residents of Native American descent, about 2,500 of whom are Passamaquoddies. The other recognized tribes are the Penobscot Nation, Aroostook band of Micmacs and the Houlton band of Maliseet Indians. They are descendants of the Algonquian-speaking Wabanaki peoples who lived in Maine before the time of the earliest European settlements. The tribes have harvested everything from lobsters to porpoises from Maine’s waters over the centuries.

In that time, their methods have changed. Oral traditions say Penobscots would fish for eels by poisoning the water with berries and plants. Today the tribes fish mostly with modern gear. The importance of fishing to the tribes’ culture, however, has never wavered, Dana said.

“We know the importance of maintaining the balance of nature and the natural systems,” he said in a presentation to a legislative committee earlier this year. “We take only what we need.”

Tribal-state relations have a long and frequently difficult history in states around the country, particularly in managing resources, but there have been recent breakthroughs. In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee this month signed a bill into law that creates a method for tribes to enter into pacts with the government to sell marijuana.

Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher is “open and committed to dialogue with the tribes,” a spokesman said. Keliher opposed the tribes’ plan for shared management of fisheries, and he and his department have sparred with Passamaquoddies in recent years.

Keliher criticized Passamaquoddy leadership last month about the tribe’s use of fyke nets to fish for baby eels. The eels, also called elvers, are a moneymaking species that is highly prized in Asian markets, sometimes selling for $2,000 per pound, and are subject to strict quotas. Both tribal and nontribal members fish for them in the state’s rivers and streams. Keliher said the tribe’s gear could cause the state to exceed the quota, but Passamaquoddy leaders have said the tribe plans to continue using the nets.

The Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe have also said recent actions by Gov. Paul LePage, such as the withdrawal of an executive order that sought to promote cooperation between the state and the tribes, have damaged relations. The two tribes and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs said in a joint document on Wednesday that they are no longer recognizing the authority of state officials, lawmakers and courts to interfere with their “self-governing rights.”

And a year ago, the tribe resisted the state’s effort to enforce quotas on individual tribal elver fishermen. The Passamaquoddies believe natural resources belong to all tribal members and not individuals, but they eventually agreed to the quotas.

Back in Bangor, Fawn Pirruccello, one of Harnois’ sisters, was having better luck with her elver catch than she had expected. All three sisters, in fact, were doing well for the breezy, cool conditions of a May evening. While she said she’s not a big fan of the quotas, for now, state laws leave her little choice.

“Like anyone else, I don’t like them,” she said. “But there’s not much you can do.”

New York State Charges Passamaquoddy Fisheries Official With Elvers Poaching

WCSH6/NBC affiliatePassamaquoddy fisheries official charged with fraud while helping Unkechaug Indian Nation implement an eel management plan.

WCSH6/NBC affiliate
Passamaquoddy fisheries official charged with fraud while helping Unkechaug Indian Nation implement an eel management plan.

 

Gale Courey Toensing, ICTMN

The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s battle with the State of Maine over Native fishing rights became an interstate issue recently when New York State authorities lodged multiple felony poaching charges against a Passamaquoddy fisheries official who is helping the Unkechaug Indian Nation implement its eel management plan.

But according to Fred Moore III, the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Fisheries Committee Coordinator who was charged, the fight for Native fishing rights is soon to become a bigger issue than the battles in Maine and New York.

Moore, his two sons and five other Native men, including citizens of the Unkechaug, Shinnecock, Mohawk and Anishinaabe nations, were charged with possession of American eels in excess of the New York State limit; possession of undersized American eels, and not having a state-issued food fish permit. All three charges are considered felonies because the value of the eels in the group’s possession was more than copy,500. They were also given misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to commit a crime and using an eel trap with a mesh size smaller than the minimum limit allowed, according to Lisa King, spokesperson for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in an e-mail response to an ICTMN request for comment.

King said the eight men “surrendered themselves” to DEC officers on April 8. She did not respond to questions seeking the state’s position on tribal sovereignty and aboriginal fishing rights. The men are scheduled for arraignment on June 25.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe has been locked in battle with the State of Maine for the past two years over the tribe’s treaty and aboriginal right to fish for elvers, tiny baby American eels also known as glass eels. Citing concerns about the dwindling number of American eels available, the state wants to limit the number of permits the tribe issues. The tribe says every member has an inherent right to fish, but its conservation plan limits the total amount of elvers the tribe can harvest. Ironically, until this year the state limited the number of permits it issued but allowed an unlimited harvest of baby eels. This year under threat from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to shut down the fishery, the state has caught up to the Passamaquoddy’s traditional conservation knowledge and reduced and limited the total allowable catch.

RELATED: Passamaquoddy Tribe Amends Fishery Law to Protect Its Citizens From State Threat

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Moore, who is working at Unkechaug under tribal authority, told ICTMN that the matter of Native fishing rights is soon to become a central issue for eastern coastal nations. The Penobscot Nation is already embroiled in a federal lawsuit against the State of Maine over hunting and fishing rights. The lawsuit is supported by the Interior Department, which has entered the case as both intervener and plaintiff, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe is thinking about intervening, Moore said. In an interview with ICTMN, Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves at the tribe’s Sipayik community, said the council will also consider a separate legal action.

RELATED: Feds Join Penobscot Suit Against State of Maine on Fishing Rights

“What we’re doing here is providing Unkechaug with technical assistance in implementing their eel management plan,” Moore said. “But we’re also here to assist other tribes in formulating a position for a class action suit against the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The ASMFC has an American eel management plan that deals purely with member states and only references Native Americans. We don’t want equal status [with states]—want to be exempt from inadequate management mechanisms which cater to the economic interests of competing jurisdictions. We can’t have any part of it because they‘re completely inconsistent with indigenous culture.”

The ASMFC, created in 1942 by Congress, represents 15 Atlantic coastal states with a stated mission of “promoting and protecting Atlantic coastal fishery resources.” Each state has three representatives on the commission: the director of the state’s marine fisheries management agency, a state legislator, and an individual appointed by the state governor to represent “stakeholder interests,” according to the organization’s website. The United South and Eastern Tribes’ 26 member tribes, whose aboriginal and reservation territories are predominantly along the Atlantic coast, are not represented on the commission.

Moore said he wasn’t fishing on the night of March 28 when the men were ticketed for violations, but that the group had fishing permits issued by Unkechaug. The DEC was alerted to the group’s activities in a creek on Long Island’s east end and waited in the weeds for the tribal members to come back and start emptying their nets of elvers, Moore said.

“They were aware that the Unkechaug had issued permits, but they made a policy statement by charging us and basically treated these folks like they’d just robbed a 7-11 at gunpoint,” Moore said. “And to be branded as poachers is laughable—Passamaquoddy has offered the state assistance in apprehending poachers.”

If DEC authorities hadn’t “pounced” on the group, Moor added, they would have seen the men stock most of the elvers above artificial barriers—which is one of the conservation techniques he is implementing for the Unkechaug.

Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace called the charges “ridiculous…. It was a multi-tribal project, and the whole idea is to restore the fishery all along the northeast coast,” he said. “If we don’t do it the whole fishery will be destroyed if they [the state] continue their practice.”

The creek is in Unkechaug aboriginal territory, where members exercise aboriginal fishing rights, Wallace said.

New York State allows a massive taking of eels six inches and longer, but prohibits the taking of elvers. The tribe has imposed a moratorium on the taking of adult eels, each of which can spawn tens of millions of elvers, Wallace said.

“Our goal is to restore 50 percent of what we take. We put them above a manmade obstruction so their chances of survival are enhanced,” he said. “This is a Native practice.”

To date, the Nation has successfully stocked more than 10,000 glass eels into Mill Pond and East Mill Pond at the headwaters of the Forge River adjacent to the Unkechaug Indian Reservation near Mastic, New York, said Wallace, adding that the DEC violated its own policy by filing felony fishing charges against Nation members and employees operating under the authority of the Unkechaug Nation American Eel Management and Restoration plan without first consulting the Nation.

“After being advised that Unkechaug eel restoration activities were being conducted under license issued by the Nation, ranking officers and representatives of the DEC acknowledged that they were aware of the license but refused to void the charges,” Wallace said. “Instead, DEC officials made racially disparaging remarks concerning the inherent rights and responsibilities of Native Americans, insisting that the Unkechaug eel fishery is a front for the illegal exportation of glass eels to other states.”

The Nation is contemplating legal action against the state, Wallace said.

On April 17, Chief Clayton Cleaves and Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy communities at Sipayik and Motahkomikuk, respectively, wrote a letter of “support and commitment” to Wallace.

“Please be assured that your efforts to secure the rights and interests of your people while ensuring the sustainability of the American eel within their natural range will benefit all Native people on the east coast, including others who do not understand the cultural and spiritual relationships we have developed over several millennia of existence within our territories,” they wrote.

The chiefs said they are committed to working with Unkechaug “in defense of the marine environment, its resources and fishing rights of indigenous people.”

 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/05/01/new-york-state-charges-passamaquoddy-fisheries-official-elvers-poaching-154683?page=0%2C1

Tribes resist elver bill that limits access

By Blake Davis, The Associated Press

The lucrative fishery for tiny glass eels, or elvers, has led to a clash between the state and Indian tribes over sovereignty and federal fishing regulations.2012 Reuters file photo

The lucrative fishery for tiny glass eels, or elvers, has led to a clash between the state and Indian tribes over sovereignty and federal fishing regulations.
2012 Reuters file photo

Officials with an American Indian tribe in Maine are resisting an initiative to impose the same restrictions on all elver fishermen, saying a cap on individual catches would force them to abandon tradition by limiting who has access to natural resources.

Members of the Passamaquoddy tribe say a bill to be considered by the House today is against their tribal values because it could prevent some of its fishermen from gaining access to the fishery.

Under the bill, elver fishermen would be subject to the same individual catch limits as other Maine fishermen. But the Passamaquoddy contend the tribe has made numerous other concessions, limiting itself to just one type of gear and agreeing to a decrease in its overall share of the elver harvest.

Passamaquoddy officials say choosing who can fish is cultural, not just a matter of conservation.

“The issue here is who gets to decide tribal culture,” said Fred Moore, the fisheries specialist with the Passamaquoddy who drafted its elver management plan. He said the tribe supported the bill as part of the state’s conservation plan.

The tribe, he said, enacted its own conservation measures years ago, including weekly catch reports from its elver fishermen.

Elvers are baby eels that have ballooned in value in recent years to become the second most valuable fishery in the state behind lobster.

As the state considers the bill, Moore said the tribe would continue to press the state to honor an earlier agreement. That agreement was the result of months of negotiations and had the approval of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission but state officials abandoned it after the attorney general voiced concern it would not be constitutional to apply two sets of rules in the same fishery.

That move also shed doubt on the authority of tribes in regulating marine resources.

The sponsor of the bill says the tribe’s position is understandable.

“The tribes have a valid point,” said Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, who also co-chairs the joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources. “They have said that they have been treated differently over the years many times and maybe we should take that” into consideration, he said.

Still, Kumiega said, lawmakers would continue to take into account the concerns raised by the attorney general.

Both state and tribal officials have said they would like to avoid the types of disputes that arose last year when the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resource invalidated all Passamaquoddy elver fishing licenses.

The commissioner has said he would take similar steps this year if the tribe did not follow state law.

Maine lawmakers advance series of gambling bills

by Alanna Durkin, Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine’s American Indian tribes that have long seen gambling as the remedy for high unemployment and sluggish economic growth in their communities are a step closer to being able to operate casinos after winning initial approval in the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday.

After several hours of debate, the House voted to overturn the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee‘s recommendation that the proposals be killed, giving new life to the bills that would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Washington County and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to operate one in Aroostook County.

Tribal representatives who’ve been working to bring gambling to their counties for decades stressed their frustration with consistently being denied the ability to do so while casinos have opened in Bangor and Oxford and reaped significant economic benefits for their communities.

“Time and time again we have been told now is not the time, that we must develop a better plan or work more closely with local communities,” said Rep. Madonna Soctomah, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the Legislature and backed the first bill to bring a gambling facility to Washington County in the early ’90s. “At the same time, the state has granted licenses to two gaming facilities. We only ask that we be given the same opportunity.”

But operators of Maine’s two existing casinos are fiercely opposing the bills and contend that new gambling in the Maine, with a population of only 1.3 million, will devastate their businesses. The measures are also getting push back from lawmakers who want to implement a competitive bidding process before Maine adds new casinos, to ensure the state gets the best deal. Casino development has been largely steered by citizen initiative, meaning the state has had no say on things like licensing fees.

“These bills are a continuation of our state’s fragmented and disorganized approach to gaming policy,” said Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth.

Another measure that advanced to the Senate on Thursday would let the Penobscot Nation and Aroostook Band of Micmacs run high-stakes electronic beano games. The House also defeated an effort to kill a bill that would allow the harness racing facility Scarborough Downs to operate slot machines, but the measure awaits further action in the House.

Lawmakers supporting the measure for Scarborough Downs argued that slot machines are the only way to keep alive the harness racing industry, which has a strong history in Maine and has lost many of its gamblers to the casinos. Others stressed the economic benefits like new jobs the expanded gambling would bring to the state that’s still struggling to get back the jobs it lost during the recession.

“I think we need to start in this state saying ‘yes’ to jobs,” said Republican Rep. Wayne Parry of Arundel. “If we continue to say ‘yes’ to jobs — but ‘not those jobs’ — we continue to show businesses around the country that we might like jobs, but not like theirs.”

The Passamaquoddy Tribe applauded the House’s action on Thursday, but the proposals still face a long road in the Legislature and, even then, voters in Washington County will get the final say.

“We’re very happy with the vote, but we’ve been here before,” said Joseph Socobasin, chief of the tribe. “We certainly have some work left to do. We’re not across the finish line yet.”

 

Bottling water could bring cash flow to Passamaquoddies

Michael Dugay, a consultant for the Passamaquoddy tribe, left, and Chief Joseph Socobasin lead a group visiting a spring water well site on tribal land in Indian Township. The tribe is planning to build a bottling plant with the goal of bottling 10 million cases of water by the third year of operation.2012 file photo/The Associated Press

Michael Dugay, a consultant for the Passamaquoddy tribe, left, and Chief Joseph Socobasin lead a group visiting a spring water well site on tribal land in Indian Township. The tribe is planning to build a bottling plant with the goal of bottling 10 million cases of water by the third year of operation.
2012 file photo/The Associated Press

Tribe leaders want to build a bottling plant to provide jobs and bolster services.

by David Sharp, The Associated Press 

INDIAN TOWNSHIP — Tucked in the nation’s northeastern corner, the Passamaquoddy tribe’s ancestral land remains as it was centuries ago: rugged and teeming with natural beauty and wildlife. Snow-covered in winter, springtime warmth reveals a rolling landscape, lakes and ponds – and dozens of bubbling springs.But there is an ugly reality inside this idyllic community: Joblessness is rampant, making it hard for residents to feed their families. The tribe also needs more money to bolster public safety and other tribal services.

The leadership has been working on a bold plan to address these issues: Capitalize on the land’s pristine spring water by building a 123,000-square-foot bottling plant and selling the water to customers outside of the tribal land.

The tribe is working with an investor and hopes to complete a deal early next year. Planning has been underway for several years, and there appears to be broad support among the 1,300 tribe members in Indian Township.

“People are struggling, especially with the cold weather coming and the high cost of fuel. Some people are having a really hard time,” said Karen Sabattis, a mother of five and grandmother of nine who’s laid off from a tribal plant that made military clothing. “We need more economic development.”

The Creative Apparel plant where Sabattis and several hundred other tribe members once worked is idle now, and there are few other employment options in the state’s poorest county. The latest figures from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs put unemployment on the reservation in Washington County at an astonishing 60 percent, causing an exodus of tribe members.

The tribal leadership believes the water bottling plant could provide for the community.

“If we had jobs that paid a livable wage, more of our people would come back,” said Chief Joseph Socobasin. “Some of them are my own family members who live off the reservation, and the only reason is that they can’t find work.”

The tribe’s goal is to create 70 good-paying industrial jobs at the plant and to bring in revenue to fund tribal schools, public safety, health care and an assisted-living center at Indian Township, Socobasin said. Even more jobs would come from spinoff businesses like a trucking company for hauling water, he said.

Tribe members have been careful not to move too fast; they want to minimize any damage to the land’s resources and maintain its natural beauty. The industrial plant would be tucked away, and trucks would use Route 1, which abuts the proposed plant site.

“It’s not just about this,” said tribe member Wes Nicholas, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “It’s about creating a future for our people. That’s our main goal.”

Bill Turner, a hydrologist, water source expert and tribal consultant, said rainwater and melting snow could provide more than 700 million gallons of water from multiple wells – without tapping the aquifer deep below the ground’s surface. And the remote location means the water source is unspoiled.

The plant initially would be set up to produce 20 million cases of water a year, although there’s enough water for more than 200 million cases of

Tomah Stream in Indian Township. The Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe plans to tap into pristine waters of the nearby Tomah aquifer with hopes of building a bottled water plant.File photo/The Associated Press

Tomah Stream in Indian Township. The Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe plans to tap into pristine waters of the nearby Tomah aquifer with hopes of building a bottled water plant.
File photo/The Associated Press

water, Turner said.

“Everything sounds positive,” Turner said from his office in New Mexico. “We should be able to inject a lot of cash into the economy and provide jobs for the Passamaquoddies.”

The tribe, which aims to own 61 percent of the company, intends to take advantage of new market tax credits for investors in rural areas as well as loan guarantee programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help cover the $32 million cost of building the plant and the first 18 months of operation, officials said.

The Passamaquoddies have no plans to go head to head with Maine’s Poland Spring, the nation’s third-largest bottled water brand. The tribe would have its own label, Passamaquoddy Blue, but it sees bigger markets through sales of store-labeled water and sales to the U.S. government, said tribal consultant Mike Dugay.

Nationwide, bottled water sales have grown to $11.8 billion despite coming under attack from environmentalists who point out that delivery trucks pollute the air and plastic bottles clog up landfills.

Market indicators point to further growth in the coming year on top of a 6.7 percent gain of bottled water sales last year, and the market has room for new entrants as soda sales give up ground and consumers seek healthier drink options, said Chris Hogan, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria, Va.

While it all sounds good, there are some skeptical tribe members.

“It goes in one ear and out the out the other because they’ve heard it all before,” said Trever Mitchell, a recent graduate of Washington County Community College in Calais.

But they want to believe.

While there are jobs elsewhere in Maine, Passamaquoddies like Mitchell, 27, would prefer to live and work on the reservation, where there’s a strong bond to the land.

“A lot of friends and relatives my age, they all feel the same way. They love the area. They love being around here. Our family is here. We all love the outdoors. But there’s just absolutely nothing to do. There’s no jobs whatsoever. And that hurts a lot of people,” he said.

Tribe says LePage threatened Passamaquoddy over elvers during ‘enraged’ phone call

By Mario Moretto, Bangor Daily News

Governor Paul LePageAmber Waterman | Sun Journal

Governor Paul LePage
Amber Waterman | Sun Journal

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage issued an ultimatum to the Passamaquoddy Tribe on 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 a possible 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.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, confirmed that LePage had spoken with Cleaves on Monday, but said she could not comment on the specifics of the conversation because she wasn’t present for the call.

“The governor is gravely concerned about this issue,” Bennett said Tuesday. “We have state law that is very clear and we have a Passamaquoddy Tribe that is knowingly issuing more than double the number of licenses that are allowed.”

She continued, saying, “In regard to what some are calling threats, the governor has the responsibility to ensure that the law is followed.”

March 12 legal opinion by Attorney General Janet Mills was made available Tuesday in which Mills backed up the state’s authority over tribal fishermen.

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.”

Rumors also swirled in Augusta on Monday that LePage had threatened to call in the National Guard, though Bennett said there was no indication that guardsmen would be called in to enforce the state’s rules on elver harvesting.

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

Newell LeweyAmber Waterman | Sun Journal

Newell Lewey
Amber Waterman | Sun Journal

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.

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.”

On Sunday night, there was a confrontation between tribal leaders, backed up by a crowd of Passamaquoddys, and Maine 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 because of 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.”

The lucrative elver season runs from March 22 to May 31. Last year, harvesters netted 19,000 pounds of the juvenile American eels and were paid nearly $38 million for their catch. Individual fisherman sometimes received more than $2,000 per pound.

Regardless of whether the tribe’s management plan is superior, Bennett emphasized that the Passamaquoddys are not in compliance with the law on the books.

“There were no concerns like this brought up during the legislative process, albeit it was a relatively quick process,” Bennett said, referring to the rule passed in March that limited the number of Passamaquoddy elver licenses. “It’s very clear that the tribe is defying state law.”

While the Passamaquoddy seem to have drawn a line in the sand over the elver issue, Bennett said the governor hoped a resolution could be found before the dispute escalates further.

“We hope the lines of communication remain open,” she said. “The governor has a background of trying to improve tribal relations. He would hate to see this issue jeopardize that relationship.”