PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The start of Maine’s lucrative elver season next month could be delayed by two weeks or more as the state resolves an ongoing dispute with the Passamaquoddy tribe, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Friday.
Commissioner Patrick Keliher said there is a ‘‘fifty-fifty’’ chance the season will not start on time on March 22 because the state will need time to validate tribal licenses following approval of an emergency bill addressing conservation efforts.
‘‘It would be my hope that we will not have to delay the start of the season by more than two weeks,’’ he told The Associated Press.
Elvers, as the baby eels are known, have come under scrutiny since prices ballooned to $2,000 a pound amid increased demand from overseas operations that raise them and sell them for food.
The state and the tribe are in agreement on the size of the limits to be imposed as the state aims to reduce the amount of elvers caught by fishermen. But they've yet to agree on how the limits would be imposed on tribal fishermen.
The emergency bill outlines that tribes in Maine must allocate their fishermen individual quotas from the 1,650 pounds they are allowed to catch. Previously, the state had reached an agreement with the tribes that they did not need to issue individual quotas as long as they didn’t exceed the overall limit.
But the attorney general raised constitutional concerns over having different sets of regulations for two groups of fishermen, and the commissioner withdrew support of the agreement.
Passamaquoddy council member Newel Lewey has said the tribe would continue to resist the new action. ‘‘We haven’t come up with a final plan at this point,’’ he said, but the tribe was in process of internal discussions.
The tribe has historically resisted state oversight of its fisheries and such individual limits would be an additional restriction on top of the quota.
Last year, the Passamaquoddy issued at least 300 more licenses than it was permitted. The state invalidated those licenses because they put it out of compliance with its management plan overseen by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
If the tribe ignores the regulations this year, the Department of Marine Resources will take similar action, Keliher said. That would include withholding from tribal members the electronic swipe cards that all fishermen must now use when they sell their catch to dealers.
‘‘The compliance issues we take really seriously,’’ Keliher said.
Maine’s elver harvest could be shut down by the fisheries commission if it does not adhere to its plan of reducing the harvest 35 percent from last year. That decision would be made following an end-of-the-season review.
Until then, it is up to Maine to enforce its new regulations.
The commissioner said a delayed start this season may be a mixed blessing. Unseasonably cold temperatures and melting slow may delay the elvers’ migration up streams, he said.
‘‘The season may be starting late naturally,’’ he said.
The season will close on May 31 or earlier if fishermen catch the state’s limit before that date.