April 3, 2013

Passamaquoddies say governor made threats over elvers

A spokesman reports LePage threatened reprisals as the tribe and state clash over who regulates the valuable fishery.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage threatened retaliation against Maine's Passamaquoddy tribe if it continues to issue elver-fishing licenses beyond the authorized state limit, a tribal council spokesman said Monday.

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Gov. Paul LePage became enraged during a conference call about elver-fishing rules on Monday, according to Newell Lewey of Pembroke, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe who took part in the call.

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Newell Lewey of Pembroke said he and other tribal members were part of a one-minute conference call with LePage on Monday morning in which the governor asked them if the tribe would follow state law regarding the valuable elver fishery.

When they responded that the tribe, not the state, has authority over licensing, catch limits and enforcement for Passamaquoddies, LePage threatened reprisals in a "loud, enraged and demanding tone," said Lewey.

LePage said he would immediately withdraw all support for the tribe and suspend consulting with it on any matter; dismantle the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which promised to uncover the fate of Indian children taken from their families and placed with white families or in foster homes; and fight any proposal for a casino in Washington County, Lewey said.

"He also threatened to shut down the entire fishery," Lewey said.

Repeated calls to the governor's press secretary were not returned Monday night.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, who co-chairs the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, said he had heard about the call and that the governor had threatened to call in the National Guard to ensure that state laws on elver fishing were enforced.

The incident was the latest in a series of skirmishes between the tribe and state officials over licensing for the elver fishery.

The baby eels, which swim upriver each spring in Maine, can fetch $2,000 a pound. The fishery's value last year was $38 million.

Tensions were already high Monday because of a confrontation Sunday night in Pembroke, in Washington County, between state officials and Passamaquoddy Indians who were fishing along the Pennamaquan River.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said officials from his department, state troopers and Maine game wardens tried to check licenses and seize the gear of fishermen who were in violation.

The three or four Passamaquoddy fishermen who were being checked by authorities were joined by nearly 60 others within minutes, said Col. Joseph Fessenden of the Maine Marine Patrol, the enforcement branch of the Department of Marine Resources.

"The safety of law enforcement officers was in jeopardy," Keliher said. Outnumbered two-to-one by the fishermen, officers withdrew.

A second check was made on fishermen and a net was seized on the Dennys River, also in Down East Maine.

"I think it was a show of force," said Lewey. "We had no guns. They did."

Under state regulations, the Passamaquoddy tribe was allowed to issue 150 licenses this year – compared with four new licenses issued through a lottery that drew more than 5,000 applicants from the rest of the state. The tribe issued 525 licenses, 375 more than the law allows, Keliher said.

At a work session of the Marine Resources Committee on Monday, Keliher asked the committee to authorize emergency legislation to criminalize any illegal takings in the elver fishery and impose stiffer fines for violations.

Poaching, fishing during a closed period and other prohibited catches would be subject to the criminal charges, said Rep. Walter Kumiega III, D-Deer Isle. Once drafted, the bill will come to the committee – probably on Wednesday morning.

It then would be referred to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to ensure that any legal implications of criminalizing what's now a civil infraction are resolved. Assuming the bill clears that review, it could go before the Legislature on Thursday, Kumiega said.

In a news release, the Passamaquoddy Fisheries Advisory Committee countered the characterization of the tribe's alleged overfishing or illegally taking elvers.

(Continued on page 2)

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