At least 20 commercial fishing and scalloping boats owned or leased and crewed by members of the northern Maine-based Passamaquoddy Tribe have been working the heavily regulated Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank this summer with tribal but no federal permits, a tribal fisherman and broker said Thursday.
In a series of interviews with the Times, Kani Malsom said he was part of the crew that was boarded and cited by the U.S. Coast Guard last month off Nantucket for scalloping without either a federal permit or the VMS vessel monitoring required within the 200-mile offshore "Exclusive Economic Zone" regulated and policed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That boarding is the only known current at-sea interaction between the tribes's fishermen and the federal authorities, who are in informal discussions "to better understand the basis for the tribe's claim to fishing rights," according to a statement broadcast via VMS and Coast Guard radio on the day of the boarding.
No fines were levied, and according to a statement released to the Times by the NOAA's office of General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation, "the violations were issued by the Coast Guard. The matter is under investigation."
The statement noted that "no notices of violation and assessment — NOVAs — have been issued."
NOVAs are the primary form of allegation used by NOAA in policing the Magnsuson-Stevens Act, which forms the framework of federal fishing regulations.
A student at the University of Maine, Malsom, 41, said the "two violations" would not deter the Passamaquoddy from continued fishing in federal waters. He also operates a fish brokerage business in the Pleasant Point reservation, buying and selling to the outside as well.
Malsom added that the fishing initiative was sanctioned by the tribal government and motivated by the crushing poverty and lack of opportunity his tribe faces every day in northern Maine's coastal Washington County — which has two cities, 44 towns and 32,000 residents, and is larger in area than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined with a decentralized economy keyed to tourism.
"They are the poorest part of the poorest county," said a public interest lawyer who works with the tribe and other indigenous people.
"We have 75 to 80 percent unemployment," said Malsom, adding the jobs the tribal members have are mostly federally funded.
The public interest lawyer said the Passamaquoddy were victims of circumstance and benign neglect. "They were not recognized by the federal government until 1980," he said, "and were an economic backwater for some time before that."
The claim of fishing rights by the Passamaquoddy tribe could devalue existing federal permits, which divide the total allowable catch of groundfish and scallops. Scallops have helped make New Bedford the nation's No. 1 cash seafood port.
The tribal claim to a participant's right to the fishery also arrives as the stocks are completing a painful two-decade restoration that has meant a hyper-consolidation of the authorized fleet, and fierce resistance to further business casualties through increasingly tight federal regulation.
But while the economic argument against making room for the Passamaquoddy holds sway along the wharves of Gloucester, New Bedford and lesser ports, where groundfish and scallops are landed, there is also empathy — a sense of solidarity and even economic opportunity seen in the offer to lease permitted boats for use by landings by tribal crews.
Russell Sherman, who wrote an open letter to President Obama in the Vineyard Gazette last week appealing for his intervention to help the economically embattled fleet, said he has been contacted by tribal representatives seeking a fishing arrangement, and would consider the idea so long as it was "legitimate."
It's more than a little ironic, he noted in an interview Thursday, that while fishing on Georges Bank this week, "we've been saying it on our boat (Lady Jane) that they (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have been treating us like they treated the Indians" — breaking promises and making fishermen feel like subject people, he said.
Sherman said he would have to consider options if legal in the desperate struggle to survive the low allocations that fishermen all along the coast have cited as dooming the fleet just as the stocks are surging back.
Passamaquoddy tribal Gov. Rick Doyle has been on vacation and unreachable, according to various sources in the reservation near Eastport, along the Canadian border.
In the days following the Aug. 25 boarding of the Paulo Marc — a Mid-Coast Maine boat with a crew of eight on board, not all from the tribe — Passamaquoddy representatives made overtures this week to more than one groundfisherman working inside the federally regulated system.
The joint announcement by NOAA and the Coast Guard regarding discussions about how to respond to the claims of ancient fishing rights by the Passamaquoddy emphasized that "the federal fisheries are fully utilized under the current management scheme," so "unpermitted entrants pose a significant danger to fish stocks and put fishermen abiding by the rules at a serious disadvantage."
No contracts or handshake arrangements were known to be completed to give the tribe access to the grounds to which the Passamaquoddy, as a government are asserting an ancient natural right to fish without federal permits.
Like Sherman, Jim Kendall, a seafood consultant in New Bedford, said he, too, feels for the tribal fishermen.
"I can understand that they're (angry) at NOAA," he said. "You've got a popular bad guy out there.
"We've been oppressed for so long, we can share their misery," Kendall added.
But, he said, "there are so many people with so little allocation," he wonders at the fairness of splitting the total allowable catch again to create a Passamaquoddy allocation.
Still, Mary Beth de Poutiloff, a Provincetown based boat owner and leader of the industry insurgency against NOAA, and Mark Agger, who owns Agger Fish Co., a Brooklyn fish brokerage, asserted solidarity with the Passamaquoddy.
"More power to our Native American brothers," wrote de Poutiloff, to applause by Agger. "They know too well about government promises ... I think they deserve a seat at the table as the pie is divided."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or email@example.com