Turning the tide

  One hundred and fifty years ago, the Indian tribes of Washington state signed treaties that were supposed to guarantee, forever, their right to collect shellfish from the beaches of Puget Sound. Not long after, the government started selling off the region’s most productive tidelands to commercial shellfish growers, who were never notified of the Indians’ harvest rights. The bitter struggle over how to divvy up the bounty from those lands finally came to an end earlier this month, when 17 tribes signed a settlement agreement with growers and the government that ends the tribes’ right to take shellfish from private, commercial beaches.

In exchange, the tribes will get $33 million from the government to buy, lease or improve other tidelands for their own harvest. For their part, the growers will spend $500,000 over 10 years to improve habitat or seed shellfish beds on public tidelands. The settlement restricts Indian harvest only on land owned by commercial growers who had an “aquatic farm registration” prior to 1995; the tribes can still take shellfish from public tidelands and from noncommercial, private tidelands, such as those owned by residents of beachfront homes.

Though it was more than a century in the making, the dispute finally reached its breaking point in the last 20 years, in the wake of the historic 1974 Boldt Decision. That ruling, which affirmed the tribes’ treaty rights to half of the state’s salmon harvest, set the stage for a 1994 decision hailed as “Boldt II.” In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Rafeedie ruled that the Indians had the same rights to shellfish as they did to salmon, and on both private and public land.

But there was a catch: On lands owned by commercial growers, the tribes could take half of only the naturally occurring shellfish. If a grower did anything to improve shellfish production, the tribes couldn’t share the extra catch. To harvest on any enhanced commercial beach, they'd have to get a court to agree on how much of the harvest was “natural” — and the growers promised to fight them every step of the way.

It was an unworkable proposition, and in the meantime, the tribes and the growers needed to work together on the shared concerns of water quality and habitat protection so they could all keep harvesting clean, tasty oysters and clams. So in 1998, just as a new case was on its way to trial, everyone involved decided to do something that seemed remarkable after the years of litigation and resentment: They sat down to talk.

The growers wanted the Indians off land they considered exclusively theirs, but that meant the tribes would have to give up historical rights and a potential harvest worth more than $2 million a year. Still, “everyone realized it made more sense for tribes not to have to go onto growers’ property, if the tribes could replace the take,” says Phil Katzen of Kanji & Katzen, who has represented half of the tribes in the case for over 20 years.

Once the tribes and growers reached an agreement, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland helped secure $11 million for the settlement from state coffers, and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., got the other $22 million into the federal budget. The money, which was allocated to each tribe based on how much of the harvest it’s giving up, will be used for habitat projects, seeding shellfish beds, and acquiring tidelands for the tribes’ exclusive use.

Though the settlement ends a decades-long stalemate and clears the way for cooperation between tribes and growers, the idea of sacrificing any treaty rights at all was painful for many of the tribes. Tony Forsman, shellfish coordinator for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and member of the Suquamish Tribe, says he spent a lot of time convincing people they weren’t selling out. He sees the agreement as an improvement for the tribal harvest. “The money can go really far if they use it right,” he says.
High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!