Maine Gov. Paul LePage allegedly threatened to retaliate against all of the Wabanaki Nations if the Passamaquoddy Tribe continues to exercise its sovereign right to manage its saltwater fishery in a way that the governor considers to be a violation of state law.
The alleged threats came during a phone call from LePage to Passamaquoddy Chief Reuben Cleaves on Monday, April 1, following a flare up over fishing rights the previous day when officials from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), state troopers and Maine game wardens raided a small group of Passamaquoddy citizens fishing in the Pennamaquan River and tried to check their licenses and seize their gear. Around 60 Passamaquoddy citizens appeared on the scene within minutes and the law enforcement officials dispersed.
According to Fred Moore, Passamaquoddy Fisheries Committee Coordinator, LePage called Cleaves at his office in Sipayik during a briefing with tribal councilors and members of the tribe’s Fisheries Committee. Cleaves had the phone on speaker so everyone heard the conversation with the governor, Moore said.
“Essentially, the governor called the chief and asked him what his problem was in complying with state laws,” Moore said. The state has complained that the tribe is selling more elvers fishing licenses than the state “allots” to the tribe. Elvers are tiny transparent baby eels that swim upriver each spring in Maine and can fetch more than $2,500 a pound.
Cleaves told LePage that the Passamaquoddy fisheries conservation management plan limits the total allowable catch by pounds as opposed to the state’s plan which limits the number of licenses issued. “Under the state plan there’s no limit on the number of eels that can be taken throughout the entire life stages of the American eels so they take little ones, big ones, pregnant ones, whatever,” Moore said.
The governor was obviously upset and his tone was harsh, Moore said. “The governor said, ‘So in other words, you’re drawing a line in the sand,’ and Chief Cleaves said, ‘Well, we’d like to work with you but we have a different plan, we use another mechanism entirely.’ Then the governor went on to say, ‘So in other words, what you’re saying is you’re going to follow Indian law and not state law.’ And the response was, ‘Well, I guess you could say that but we have a plan and it’s a good plan and we’re going to stick with it.’”
That’s when LePage allegedly began his threats, Moore said. LePage allegedly threatened to withdraw his support for the tribal-state Truth and Reconciliation Commission, abandon his endorsement for a casino referendum in the poverty-stricken Washington County, reverse an executive order guaranteeing consultation with the Wabanaki Nations – the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac – and shut the entire fishery down, if Passamaquoddy continues to disregard state law on the sale of licenses. (Related: Wabanaki Tribes, Maine Sign Historic Foster Care TRC)
A delegation of Passamaquoddy officials traveled to Augusta, the state capitol on April 3 to talk about the fisheries argument. The delegation included Moore, Passamaquoddy Vice-Chief Clayton Sockabasin from the Indian Township reservation, and Tribal Councilors and Fishery Committee members Newell Lewey and Leslie Nicholas.
“We are hopeful that we can have an honest discussion,” Lewey said in a press release prior to the meeting “We the Passamaquoddy, the People who Spear the Pollock, the saltwater fishers, are willing to talk but we are unwilling to shed our identity.”
After the meeting Lewey told Indian Country Today Media Network, “We had a good meeting and I think it was productive. We found some common ground and we’re going to work toward some better communication and work closely to monitor what’s happening.” Pressed for details, Lewey said he first had to report to the tribe’s Fisheries Committee. He acknowledged, however, that Passamaquoddy will continue to use its management plan based on capping the total pounds of fish caught to 3,600 pounds, a total that has been endorsed by the Joint Tribal Council of people from both Sipayik and Indian Township reservations.
The conflict over elvers fishing rights was a hot topic this legislative session as the state drafted, then passed LD (Legislative Document) 451, a draconian law that criminalizes the violation of state laws limiting the taking of elvers. The law prohibits the Passamaquoddy Tribe from issuing more than 200 licenses for elvers. According to a media release from the governor’s office, under the management plan established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Maine is restricted to issuance of 744 licenses. “The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s issuance of 575 licenses to tribal members now puts the State out of compliance with the license limitation, regardless of the actual pounds landed,” the release says.
The state’s interest in elvers came into play only in the last few years as the price of the squiggly baby eels shot up astronomically. According to the Bangor Daily News Maine’s Department of Marine Resources’ calculate that the elver harvest earned nearly $38 million in 2012 – around five times the $7.6 million the year before. In 2010 the elver fishery landed only $584,000 for licensed fishermen. The elver fishery now ranks behind only lobster in Maine for overall fishery value.
Lewey said that the tribe’s management plan is “steeped in the traditions of our people, steeped in our commitment to this species at all of its life stages, steeped in the conservation measures [that] are a way of life for us.” The current conflict over the tribe’s fishing right comes as the elver season is only two weeks old, Lewey said, “but the Passamaquoddy Tribe has been ‘in’ this conversation for over 500 years. We explicitly reserved our rights to hunt and fish ‘as formerly’ in the 1727 Treaty of Falmouth and in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Agreements. This means, as our ancestors fished and hunted, so will we. These rights were not abrogated in the Treaty of Watertown, nor in the 1794 Treaty. We can work on the plan, we welcome collaboration, but we do not ask for permission, and we cannot accept oversight,” Lewey said. “We will always be Passamaquoddy. We will always fish. This is inalienable.”