Dispute over tribal access to shellfish enters new phase

Brief note: I was on vacation last week. Did you miss me? I managed to write a couple blog entries and keep up on the news for the “Water, Water Everywhere” listing at the top of this page. But vacations tend to pull me away. So now I’m back on the job. By the way, does anybody check the listings for water news, research findings, government actions or upcoming events? I’d like to know if someone finds this feature useful.

It was not a huge surprise that Northwest tribes rejected nearly half the commercial shellfish beaches put forth by commercial growers. We’re still talking about the $33 million legal settlement, of course. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

If you recall, I have been talking about the potential conflicts since the day the agreement was signed in a ceremony at a shellfish farm near Shelton (Kitsap Sun, July 6, 2007). Check out the other stories I wrote on July 6, 2007; Jan. 4, 2008; March 9, 2008; Aug. 15, 2008; and Oct. 9, 2008.

What it comes down to, I believe, was an eagerness on the part of commercial growers to get a settlement using state and federal dollars. Without an agreement, the parties would have faced turmoil as they tried to figure out how the tribes could gain access to commercial beaches and how they would take advantage of “natural” production around cultivated shellfish without destroying the livelihood of an entire industry.

Given what has taken place, I suspect that most people involved wish that specific properties had been named in the settlement agreement, rather than resorting to a list of criteria that allows for subjective judgments about which properties meet or do not meet the standards.

If the wrangling over properties had taken place before the agreement was signed, would things have come out different? If today’s frustration by growers had been experienced before the agreement was signed, would there even be an agreement today?

Tribal officials knew that the settlement agreement was not going to allow every beach to qualify as a commercial shellfish bed. Now we can see where the tribal lawyers are headed. We don’t yet know, however, whether other tribal leaders will allow for more flexibility.

You may download the full list of properties and the reasons they were rejected in a document filed in federal court titled “Treaty Tribes’ Request for Dispute Resolution” (PDF 2 mb). The document also spells out precisely the various criteria that must be met under the settlement agreement.

Every one of the 864 parcels submitted by the growers is unique, and at least half of them could be the subject of long and involved arguments about whether they qualify under the agreement. So far, I’ve chosen not to take the considerable time it would require to lay out all pro and con arguments for any property.

Instead, let me give you an example of how there can be gray areas in this dispute. Dave Steele, who has worked with many growers, says he has seen cases similar to this:

A group of neighbors who own tidelands get together and hire an experienced person to harvest their beaches. The owners split the proceeds. The area has been certified as safe by state health officials, but the beaches were never officially listed as a shellfish farm. Different companies harvest the beaches in different years, but they don’t keep records for individual parcels. The beaches may be planted. Folks may take steps to exclude starfish and other predators. The owners get a steady income year after year.

Does this sound like a commercial shellfish operation, or just a bunch of residents selling shellfish from their beaches? What are the key elements that make it commercial or strictly residential?

This is how the arguments are stacking up. If nothing is worked out, a federal judge could be faced with going through this kind of exercise.

3 thoughts on “Dispute over tribal access to shellfish enters new phase

  1. I think it is just the tribes way of sticking out their tongue at us because we are stupid enough to even have a treaty after 150+ years. I also think the majority of people live in a vacuum because they allow this to happen and never say anything.

    The tribes will never harvest those beaches. Funny how they talk about wanting to protect the shellfish beds and fish runs, especially after watching them fire off fireworks at the beaches over the 4th and throwing their trash in the Sound.

  2. My parents allowed pickers on their beach occasionally, as did their neighbors.
    The pickers were professional and paid for their harvest…no way in hades though, can those private properties be considered commercial properties.
    Sometimes giddy, silly greed and retaliation is carried too far.

    If the tribes want to harvest off private property, let them pay the premium waterfront taxes first…going back to when the property was bought. Nothing else is fair, nor just.
    Sharon O’Hara

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