May 29, 2019 (Augusta, ME) – Under a bill proposed by Governor Janet Mills that earned broad-based support during a public hearing today, Maine’s tribes will receive long-sought water quality protections for legal sustenance fishing rights provided to the tribes in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. The bill (LD 1775) addresses an issue that has been a source of protracted conflict between the State and Maine’s tribes.
“Protecting sustenance fishing rights respects the culture and heritage of Maine’s native people,” said Nick Bennett, Staff Scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The new water quality protections provided by this bill are long overdue and of great importance to Maine’s tribes. We commend Governor Mills, Commissioner Reid, Maine’s tribal leaders, and the tribes’ natural resource professionals for their efforts to bring this landmark bill forward.”
LD 1775 establishes sustenance fishing as a “designated use” for tribal waters identified by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Maine’s four tribes: the Penobscot Indian Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of the Maliseets, and the Aroostook Band of Mic Macs. Within these waters, the bill protects sustenance fishing rights by calculating criteria for water contaminants based on a fish consumption rate of 200 grams (about seven ounces per day).
Until now, the State has never created water quality criteria aimed specifically at protecting the sustenance fishing rights of Maine’s tribes. Rather, the DEP has treated tribal waters the same as all other waters of the state, with water quality protections based on a fish consumption rate of 32 grams per day (about eight ounces per week). Maine’s tribal members have historically consumed fish from Maine waters at higher rates than the public at-large.
Maine tribes contested this issue and sought assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which promulgated standards in 2016 to protect the sustenance fishing rights of tribal members. The State of Maine challenged those standards in court, arguing that EPA had overstepped its authority on jurisdictional bounds. The case has not been resolved in the courts, but LD 1775 would bring resolution to the long-standing debate, finally recognizing in the state’s water quality laws the sustenance fishing rights of Maine’s tribes.
LD 1775 is presented by House Speaker Sara Gideon, and co-sponsored by: Senate President Troy Jackson; Representatives Benjamin Collins, Michelle Dunphy, Lori Gramlich, Rena Newell, Rachel Talbot Ross, and Ralph Tucker; and Senator Brownie Carson.