Elver Fishery Individual Fishing Quotas Debate Continues

Yesterday I blogged about the delay to Maine’s 2014 elver season, and in that blog entry, I touched on the individual fishing quotas created by new legislation. These individual fishing quotas are central to an ongoing battle between the State of Maine and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, one of Maine’s five federally recognized Indian tribes. Unlike previous years, in 2014 Maine will impose an overall catch quota on the number of elvers landed in the State. In order to implement the overall catch quota this year, each license issued by the State will have an individual quota attached to it, a provision the Passamaquoddy Tribe strongly opposes.

Conflict between the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the State over the Elver fishery is nothing new, but earlier this year, the Tribe and the State had appeared to find some common ground. In a tentative agreement worked out over a series of meetings between tribal officials, fisheries managers and lawmakers, the Tribe would have been given a single overall quota of 1,650 pounds with no individual quota mandate. However, Attorney General Janet Mills raised concerns that the agreement may be unconstitutional, and the deal fell through. The new regulations as currently written and passed into law recently would allow an unlimited number of licenses to be issued to tribal fishermen this year, however the Tribe will be required to assign a set quota to each individual license. The sum of these individual quotas must stay within the overall quota given to the Tribe of 1,650 pounds.

“So practically speaking,” says Senator Christopher Johnson, who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, “the number of licenses will be limited by how much quota is assigned to each one.”

Last year, in a highly controversial move, the Passamaquoddy Tribe issued 575 tribe-issued elver fishing permits, most of which were subsequently invalidated by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). The Maine State Legislature had passed legislation limiting the Tribe to only 200 licenses. Tribal officials were outraged and maintained the Tribe had the right to manage its own natural resources and issue as many licenses as it deemed appropriate. The State disagreed, stating that “tribal members are subject to Maine’s regulatory authority over marine resources to the same extent as other Maine citizens.”

Under the new regulations, DMR points out, 575 Passamaquoddy fishers can be issued licenses legally this year, so long as individual quotas issued to each license holder do not total more than the Tribe’s overall quota. [To be clear, the 575 number in the previous sentence is referring to the number of tribe-issued permits issued last year, not the number that can legally be issued this year. As is made clear in the next sentence, there is no cap on the number of licenses that may be issued this year so long as individual quotas issued to each license holder do not total more than the Tribe’s overall quota. As such, 100, 575 or 5000 permits could be issued to Passamaquoddy fishers this year. -ed.] “Under the new regulations, DMR points out, an unlimited number of Passamaquoddy fishers can be issued licenses legally this year, so long as individual quotas issued to each license holder do not total more than the Tribe’s overall quota.”]There is no cap on the number of licenses,” says Jeff Nichols, director of communications for DMR. “They can divide their quota among every member of the Tribe if they wish. It is up to them to decide which members of the tribe can participate.”

Tribal officials counter that no member of the Tribe should be excluded from the fishery by the state government. They say equally distributing the 1,650-pound quota amongst Maine’s Passamaquoddy population of roughly 2,500 people wouldn’t make sense. Further, tribal leaders claim, the right of the Passamaquoddy to manage their own fishery is granted by treaty. 

But members of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, as well as other stakeholders, argue individual quotas for all license holders are necessary if the fishery is to be managed sustainably. With elver prices skyrocketing last year, poaching became a significant issue at the same time that concerns were being raised regarding overexploitation of the stock. This year, each license issued by the State will be accompanied by a transaction swipe card that will keep track of each fisher’s landings as he or she sells them. The alternative to individual quotas, Nichols points out, would have been a so-called “derby fishery” in which “a small number of fishers could potentially land the entire quota thereby denying access to other tribal members.” 

Tribal officials plan to submit an emergency bill Monday in an effort to remove the individual quota mandate from from tribal fishers. For its part, DMR continues to move forward with implementing the elver transaction card system and establishing the individual quota system for non-tribal fishers. Determining ho much individual quota each license holder will receive is both complex and controversial.

“The Tribe can determine who they would like issued a license and what part of the quota each person’s license would have as its individual quota,” says Johnson. When it comes to how individual quotas for non-tribal fishers will be determined, Nichols says it’s still being worked out but will likely be done this coming week.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Legislation, Maine Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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