“Shinnecock Indians have fished the local waters here on the East End of Long Island since before European settlers first appeared in the 1600s, up through its evolution into the wealthy summer playground known as the Hamptons. So David Taobi Silva, 42, a tribal member who lives on the reservation just outside of Southampton village, says that when he harvests fish locally, he needs no commercial license from New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and is exempt from its strict regulations to protect fish populations.But that is not how the state sees it — and the result is a clash between contemporary rules and ancient customs.” C. Kilgannon, The New York Times
“Two Environmental Conservation officers got a tip last year that Mr. Silva had stretched a long net in a creek off the reservation. They found him at night harvesting an elusive and valuable catch: the nearly invisible tiny eels that wriggle into the headwaters of local bays along the Atlantic coast for several weeks each spring.
These toothpick-size eels, also called elvers or glass eels for their translucent bodies, can bring staggering prices in Asian markets, up to $2,500 per pound in a peak market.
They are illegal to harvest in New York, a regulation state officials call vital in protecting a depleted population. But Mr. Silva told the officers that he was free to gather the eels, citing an aboriginal right to fish locally that is based on Shinnecock tradition and ancient treaties that predate and supersede government laws.
Mr. Silva had been harvesting elvers, or glass eels. The eels can bring up to $2,500 per pound in a peak market. Credit Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press
‘We’ve been fishing here forever, so it’s hard for me to understand that it has suddenly become illegal for Shinnecock people,’ said Mr. Silva, who was nevertheless charged with illegally harvesting the eels.
The officers seized his nets. And though the several hundred tiny eels added up to perhaps a fistful, they were still worth $500, said Mr. Silva, who now faces possible fines that could exceed $80,000…The eels have sparked a gold rush hysteria and a related reality show in Maine, which has restricted catch quotas.
In 2016, federal and state agents conducted a four-year investigation they called “Operation Broken Glass,” and charged dealers and fishermen across several Atlantic states with trafficking nearly $2 million in elvers, which are flown live to Asian aquaculture companies and raised for use as seafood delicacies (sushi and sashimi).
Mr. Silva plans on citing cases in which local courts have recognized Shinnecock fishermen’s exemption from state regulations, and federal cases in which Indian treaties were deemed to have superseded state laws.”