The Squaxin Island Tribe partnered with private landowners to share the benefits of a bumper crop of oysters.

“Over the last two years environmental conditions seemed to have improved for Pacific oysters and we saw an unusually large natural set across the area,” said Eric Sparkman, shellfish biologist for the Squaxin Island Tribe. “While there are usually a handful of places where we see self-sustaining populations of Pacifics, the set we saw was really off the charts.”

On the surface, the increased population meant more oyster harvest opportunities for Squaxin tribal members.

Some of the highest densities were on private tidelands, where the tribe has a treaty right to half of naturally occurring shellfish. But tribal staff proposed an alternative that benefited tribal harvesters as well as a dozen private tideland owners along Hammersley Inlet.

Under the plan tribal harvesters would pick the entire harvestable population of oysters and then sell the harvest to a non-tribal buyer. Part of the proceeds of that sale would go back to the private tidelands owner.

The process of working with the tribe and the harvest itself was painless, said John Culton, one of the private tideland owners. “I was working with their staff for weeks, they were there every step of the way. They were very friendly,” Culton said. “They did everything, from doing the survey to setting up the pick. The next thing I knew there was a check in the mail. That doesn’t happen very often.”

That experience runs counter to the portrayal of tribal shellfish management after a federal court reaffirmed the shellfish treaty right in the 1990s.

“Twenty years ago, when we were working through how we’d exercise our treaty-reserved and court-affirmed harvest right on private tidelands, there was a lot of fear-mongering going on,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the tribe. “People were claiming that we’d trample on private property rights and it would be a disaster. But because we work together, everyone sees a benefit, from the tribal harvesters, the landowners and even the private shellfish dealer who is able to sell the oysters.”