Commercial Shellfish Growers Settlement

In 2007 Puget Sound commercial shellfish growers and 17 treaty Indian tribes in western Washington reached a landmark agreement that addressed treaty shellfish harvest rights, preserved the health of the shellfish industry and provided greater shellfish harvest opportunities for everyone in the state.

The agreement resolved a number of thorny legal issues stemming from Judge Edward Rafeedie’s 1994 federal court ruling that upheld the tribes’ treaty-reserved right to half of the harvestable shellfish in inter-tidal waters and established them as co-managers of the resource with the State of Washington.

Implementing portions of Judge Rafeedie’s ruling proved 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. Buyers weren’t told that the tidelands might be subject to treaty tribal shellfish harvest, and over the years the shellfish industry in Puget Sound flourished. Today Puget Sound is one of the nation’s top shellfish producing regions; in Mason County the shellfish industry is the second largest private employer.

Most vexing of the unresolved issues in Rafeedie’s ruling was how the tribes were to harvest their share of naturally occurring shellfish on privately owned commercial tidelands. Accessing the shellfish could be hugely disruptive and costly for some commercial shellfish growers who had spent many years enhancing their holdings.

Rather than turning to the courts to resolve the issues, tribes and growers worked together with state and federal leaders to craft an agreement that that complements ongoing efforts such as the Puget Sound Partnership to ensure that local waters remain clean and healthy for future generations – of shellfish and people.

Key pieces of the agreement included:

  • The tribes will forgo their treaty right to harvest an estimated $2 million worth of naturally occurring shellfish annually from commercial growers’ beds.
  • Growers will provide, over 10 years, $500,000 worth of shellfish enhancement on public tidelands of the state’s choosing.
  • A $33 million trust is established for the 17 treaty tribes to acquire and enhance other tidelands to which they will have exclusive access.

To achieve these goals, the settlement agreement had to be supported on a number of fronts. Congress passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Norm Dicks and co-sponsored by nearly all members of the Washington Congressional delegation; the Bush Administration included $22 million in the President’s budget; Representative Norm Dicks worked to secure federal appropriations; the state legislature, with support from Gov. Chris Gregoire has provided $9 million from the state’s general fund; and $2 million worth of funding has been set aside by Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.