OLYMPIA (May 18, 2007) – Puget Sound treaty Indian tribes and commercial shellfish growers have finalized an agreement that will protect and enhance the resource while resolving legal issues from a federal court ruling that re-affirmed treaty-reserved tribal shellfish harvest rights.
The pact resolves lingering legal issues from a 1994 federal court ruling that upheld the tribes’ treaty-reserved shellfish harvest rights. The agreement preserves the health of the shellfish industry, recognizes the importance to the tribes of their shellfish harvest rights and provides greater shellfish harvest opportunities for everyone in the state.
“We had a choice, and we chose cooperation,” said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “Everyone loses when we turn to the courts to settle natural resource issues. The shellfish resource is too important – to tribal cultures, to the shellfish industry and to everyone who lives in the Puget Sound region – for us to fight over it.”
“Shellfish growers and the tribes have developed a fair solution to a difficult problem. This agreement will right an historical wrong and will put more shellfish on the tidelands for everyone,” said Bill Taylor, president of Taylor Shellfish Co.
“Shellfish are an important resource in Washington and the fact that everyone came together to reach an agreement underscores their vital role in our economy,” said Governor Chris Gregoire.
The settlement brings closure to unresolved issues from Judge Edward Rafeedie’s 1994 federal court ruling that upheld 17 tribes’ treaty-reserved right to half of the harvestable shellfish in western Washington. The ruling also affirmed the tribes as co-managers of the resource with the State of Washington.
Implementing Rafeedie’s ruling, however, proved extremely difficult because the state and federal governments had allowed many of the best tribal shellfish harvest areas to be sold to private owners more than a century ago. Those purchasers were never told that those tidelands might be subject to tribal treaty harvest, and over the years, the commercial shellfish industry flourished in the region. Today, in Mason County alone, the shellfish industry is the second largest private employer.
Chief among several unresolved aspects of Rafeedie’s ruling was how tribes were to harvest their share of naturally occurring shellfish on private commercial tidelands. While the ruling prohibited tribes from harvesting shellfish from “staked and cultivated” beds enhanced by private owners, it upheld the tribes’ right to half of the naturally occurring shellfish on those tidelands. Accessing those shellfish, however, would be hugely disruptive and cost prohibitive for commercial shellfish growers who had spent many years enhancing those tidelands.
“Fault for creating this controversy lies squarely with the State of Washington and the United States, for selling the tidelands and not objecting to the sale, respectively,” Judge Rafeedie said.
Key components of the agreement between shellfish growers and the tribes include:
• The tribes will forgo their treaty right to harvest an estimated $2 million of shellfish annually from commercial shellfish growers’ beds.
• Over the next 10 years growers will provide $500,000 worth of shellfish enhancement on public tidelands of the state’s choosing, adding value to the agreement that benefits all citizens of the state.
• The tribes will be able to access a $33 million trust, established with $11 million in state funds and $22 million in federal funds, to acquire and enhance other tidelands to which they will have exclusive access.
“This is an historic event that reaches closure on a fundamentally important aspect of resource management in our state,” said Doug Sutherland, Commissioner of Public Lands. “The parties have worked long and hard to reach this agreement and I am very pleased to see it reach this fair and equitable solution.”
Congressman Norm Dicks, who was instrumental in securing the federal portion of funding for the settlement, said he is please with the results. “I will continue working to get the federal share of the settlement appropriated and will work with the tribes as they develop an enhanced shellfish industry. This settlement also provides our state’s commercial shellfish growers with the certainty they have been seeking.”
For more information, contact: Tony Forsman, Shellfish Coordinator, NW Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 297-0089 or Tony Meyer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4325; Bill Dewey, Taylor Shellfish Co., (360) 426-6178