Hakai Magazine

Part of the dispute between indigenous leaders and Maine’s state government revolves around allocating fishing rights for young eels, or elvers. Photo by Joel Page/Reuters/Corbis

Fish Fight

In Maine, indigenous tribes have severed ties with the state.

Authored by

by Brian Owens

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There are no border guards when you cross the bridge from the tiny village of Princeton, Maine, to the Indian Township Reservation, but according to the Passamaquoddy Tribe who live there, you have entered sovereign territory.

Last week, the Passamaquoddy and the nearby Penobscot Nation both withdrew their representatives from the Maine State Legislature, citing a breakdown in relations with the state government. “We find ourselves further and further from self-determination and a relationship that respects our inherent authority as tribal governments, as tribal people,” said Penobscot representative Wayne Mitchell in his speech announcing the withdrawal.

The Penobscot have been sending a representative to the state legislature since 1823, and the Passamaquoddy since 1842. These tribes have never had full say in state activities. In the legislature, representatives can introduce or co-sponsor bills and sit on committees, but their votes are not counted. This is the first time they have voluntarily withdrawn from the legislature.

A third tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, decided to retain its seat, which it only gained in 2012, while the state’s fourth tribe, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, goes unrepresented.

The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot have clashed with the state government, and Governor Paul LePage in particular, over several issues in the past few years. But the biggest stumbling block has been control over sustenance fishing rights—an issue that is central to Passamaquoddy culture, says Matthew Dana, the Passamaquoddy representative. “Our name means ‘the people who spear pollock.’ We are connected to the marine life, that’s what we do, that’s who we are as a people,” he says. “To have those practices be diminished and taken away by state law with little or no input from the tribe is very concerning.”

Theo Willis, an environmental planner who works for the Passamaquoddy on fisheries issues, says there are long-running disputes over licenses for lobster fishing and allowing alewives (river herring) back into the St. Croix River, but the biggest issue now involves catching juvenile eels, or elvers, which are a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. The value of that fishery has skyrocketed since 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami in Japan devastated the local fishery there. The price for elvers rose from a few hundred dollars a pound in 2010-11, to more than $2,000 a pound in 2012-13.

The state and the tribes have clashed over how to award licenses to fish for the eels, how to determine and set limits on the catch, and what kind of equipment can be used. The state wants to set catch limits on individual fishing licenses, and restrict the use of fyke nets, which remain stationary in the water. The tribes say the state has no right to dictate fishing rules to them. “There is conflict over just how to manage the resource, and whether the tribe has the wherewithal to effectively manage their eel take,” says Willis. “The tribe says yes, the state says no.”

The Penobscot, with support from the federal government, are also suing the state to try and enforce stricter water quality standards in the Penobscot River.

The final straw for the tribes came in April this year, says Dana, when Governor LePage rescinded an executive order from 2011 that directed state departments to consult the tribes on all issues that affected them, and to recognize the tribes’ sovereign relationship as equals to the state. The new order passed in its place stated that the tribes, their people, their lands, and their resources should fall under the jurisdiction of state law. “That is not the case,” says Dana.

LePage’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to local media said the relationship between the state and the tribes was one of equals, but “the tribes have had difficulty working together, and they have not been cooperative in working with the state.”

Dana says the tribes have not yet decided how the relationship with the state will proceed now that they have withdrawn from the legislature. “We have officially severed ties, but we are open to discussions,” he says. “We realize the importance of diplomacy—we’re not going anywhere, and we know the state is not either.”