Shellfish have been a mainstay of western Washington Indian tribes for thousands of years. Clams, crab, oysters, shrimp, and many other species were readily available for harvest year-round The rapid decline of many western Washington salmon stocks, due in large part to habitat loss from the region’s burgeoning human population, has pushed shellfish to the forefront of many tribal economies.
The tribes have two distinct types of shellfish harvests – commercial and ceremonial/subsistence. Shellfish harvested during a commercial fishery are sold to licensed shellfish buyers who either sell shellfish directly to the public or to other commercial entities. Tribes collect taxes from tribal members who sell shellfish. Those taxes are used to help pay for tribal natural resource programs. Ceremonial and subsistence harvests of shellfish, which have a central role in tribal gatherings and daily nutrition, are intended for tribal use only.
As with salmon, the right to harvest shellfish lies within a series of treaties signed with representatives of the federal government in the 1850s. Language pertaining to tribal shellfish harvesting is as follows:
“The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the United States; and of erecting temporary houses for the purposes of curing; together with the privilege of hunting and gathering roots and berries on open and unclaimed lands. Provided, however, that they shall not take shellfish from any beds staked or cultivated by citizens.”
— Treaty of Point No Point
Jan. 26, 1855
Clamming was dominated by the tribes well into the 1920s, but as tideland continued to be purchased by non-Indians, tribes were slowly excluded from their traditional shellfish harvest areas.
In 1974, U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt ruled the tribes had reserved the right to harvest half of the harvestable salmon and steelhead in western Washington. Through the “Boldt Decision”, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, tribal and state fisheries staff have worked together to develop fisheries regimes to ensure harvest opportunities for Indians and non-Indians alike.
Talks between the tribes and the state began in the mid-1980s, but were unsuccessful. In 1989, the tribes were forced to file suit in federal court to have their treaty shellfish harvest rights recognized. Years of negotiations were unsuccessful, and the issue went to trial in May 1994.