AUGUSTA — The Marine Resources Committee last week voted to kill proposed legislation that could have shut down Maine’s elver fishery.
The vote came just five days after Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher adopted an emergency rule banning the use of certain elver fishing gear by most members of Maine’s four Indian tribes because of threats to sell illegally harvested elvers out of state.
That threat has apparently receded.
“All is good at this time,” Keliher said in an email on Monday. “Compliance is very high with all harvesters this year,” with “no uptick in illegal fishing.”
The bill (LD 1262), sponsored by Rep. Matthew Dana II, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, would have authorized Keliher to sign a “memorandum of agreement” with the state’s four tribes relating to the management of commercial and sustenance fishing for eels and elvers.
At a public hearing on the bill late in April, Dana testified that the rationale for his bill was the importance of the species to the Wabanaki people throughout their history and the longstanding disagreement between the state and the tribes over who could control the saltwater fishing rights of tribal members. According to Dana, the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act protected the tribes’ traditional authority to manage the saltwater fishing rights of their members.
“Both the state and the tribes have a shared interest of cooperative management of all marine species,” Dana said in written testimony to the committee.
Maine does not accept the view that the tribes have an independent right to control saltwater fisheries. In recent years, that disagreement has led to occasional conflicts in the lobster, scallop and elver fisheries.
Keliher testified that DMR opposed Dana’s proposed legislation because it created the risk that the state’s lucrative elver fishery could be closed. In recent years, the price for commercially harvested elvers — juvenile eels — has frequently topped $2,000 per pound during the 70-day fishing season established by the Legislature.
In 2012, the elver harvest was worth more than $40.3 million. Last year, with a landings quota of less than 50 percent of the 2012 catch, landings were worth nearly $8.5 million.
“Maine’s eel and elver fisheries are managed by the state” in accordance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) American eel fishery management plan, Keliher said. Any changes to Maine’s rules are adopted “so that the state remains compliant with ASMFC.”
Last year, the regulatory body established a fixed total allowable catch for elvers that is to remain in effect from the 2015 through the 2017 fishing seasons. Exceeding that catch limit could lead the ASMFC to shut down the state’s elver fishery.
There is considerable pressure on the regulators to stop the juvenile eel fishery. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the NOAA Fisheries Service are reviewing whether the American eel should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The controversy over tribal fisheries management appeared to come to a head early this month when Keliher adopted an emergency rule banning the use of fixed, mesh fyke nets in the elver fishery except by harvesters holding an appropriate license issued by DMR.
He acted immediately after DMR received notice from the Passamaquoddy Tribe on May 4 that it had issued a number of “sustenance licenses,” 31 of which were for a combination of fyke net and dip net, to its members. Until that time, Keliher said, DMR believed that the existing Tribal Fisheries Management Plan prohibited the use of fyke nets. Fyke nets typically catch larger amounts of elvers than dip nets.
At about the same time, Keliher said, some a tribal executive told members of the Marine Patrol that the Passamaquoddy Tribe intended to sell and ship elvers caught under sustenance licenses outside Maine in violation of state law.
Against that background, the Marine Resources Committee voted on May 13 that Dana’s bill ought not to pass. The 11-2 split vote means that the bill may still be considered by the full Legislature.