Public Health

Ensuring that tribal product is as safe as possible to eat is a high priority with the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.


Bivalve species such as clams, oysters, mussels and scallops are the focus of efforts to protect public health. The harvest and handling of these shellfish must be closely watched for two reasons:

  • Bivalves feed by filtering small particles from the water. The algae that causes Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (red tide), as well as bacteria and viruses can all be eaten by shellfish as they feed. While these organisms do not harm the shellfish, they can be poisonous and even fatal to humans.
  • Some of these bivalves are often eaten raw or only partially cooked. On the West Coast, for example, oysters are commonly slurped straight from the shell. On the East Coast, ‘steamer’ clams are also frequently eaten raw.

National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP)

In the winter of 1924, major eastern and Midwest cities were hit with a serious outbreak of typhoid fever. The source was traced back to sewage-contaminated oysters. The federal government immediately set about establishing guidelines to be applied to various aspects of the oyster industry to prevent a repeat of this outbreak. In February 1925, a national conference was held in Washington, D.C., and the National Shellfish Sanitation Program was born. Overseen by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this program regulates all aspects of bivalve harvesting and handling, when the raw product is destined for interstate transport. All components of the NSSP also apply to imported shellfish product, requiring other countries to have a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. before their product can be imported to the U.S.

Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC)

The NSSP is constantly evolving as knowledge of public health issues increases, and gaps or loopholes in the current system are found. Anyone can propose changes to the NSSP, but these proposals must be approved at the biennial Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), which is held in different locations around the country, every other year. FDA representatives, state public health officials and shellfish industry members all participate equally at ISSC. Tribal representation has, to date, been in a regulatory capacity.

Even the FDA may not change the NSSP without first submitting a proposal at ISSC meetings and having it adopted. Unlike most other conferences, there are no talks here. The week-long meeting focuses strictly on debating the merits of proposals. After its conclusion, all actions taken by ISSC are orwarded to FDA headquarters, where each is either adopted into the program, or returned to the next ISSC for further consideration.

Tribal Commitment to the Process

Strongly supportive of the public safety value of the NSSP, the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington have sent several representatives to ISSC every year since 1990. Not only do tribes support the process, but they regularly participate in committees and task forces to address issues.

Consent Decree: While the Rafeedie decision in 1994 reaffirmed treaty shellfish rights for the tribes in western Washington, a series of negotiations between the tribes, Washington State Department of Health (DoH) and the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure the public was assured of the safest shellfish possible. This was a major agreement, formulated as a Consent Decree, that was signed by each tribal chair, the U.S. Department of Justice and DoH.

ISSC Executive Board: In recognition of tribal commitment to safe bivalve shellfish, a seat for Northwest tribal participation was created on the ISSC Executive Board. Years of commitment to the ISSC has resulted in a tribal representative being appointed chair of that organization’s Foreign Relations Committee for the past decade.

PacRim: The tribes also work to protect public health on a regional level by serving on the Executive Board of the Pacific Rim Shellfish Sanitation Association since 1990. All western states, including Nevada, Hawaii and Alaska, participate in this forum, as does Canada.

Historically, tribes hunted, fished and foraged for ceremonial, subsistence and trade purposes.

Today, tribes continue to harvest shellfish and other natural resources for ceremonial, subsistence and economic purposes. At the same time, these resources are threatened by pollution, population growth and climate change, making the protection of those resources more important than ever.