For the second time in recent months, a Mason County based seafood company has been accused of growing shellfish on state tidelands. It’s possible that Taylor Shellfish is improperly using two acres of state property at the end of Case Inlet, according to officials from the Department of Natural Resources.
How ironic, then, that DNR officials only recently settled a yearlong dispute with Taylor over the harvesting of shellfish from 21 acres of tidelands in Gallagher Cove in Totten Inlet.
The two incidents have prompted state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark to order an inventory of state-owned tidelands, which total about 68,100 acres.
It’s a wise decision. With a complete inventory, state officials will be able to clean the slate. They will discover any trespass issues, can work to resolve those disputes, then manage future contracts to ensure that shellfish are not being harvested from state tidelands.
The state Department of Natural Resources is the steward of 2.6 million acres of state aquatic lands including 68,100 acres of state-owned tidelands. Given that inventory, it’s not surprising that mistakes occur.
It was in DNR’s regulatory role that agency officials clashed with Taylor Shellfish managers last year over the harvest of shellfish from disputed tidelands in Totten Inlet.
Taylor officials claimed that the previous landowner farmed the tidelands from the 1950s until 1972, when Taylor Shellfish purchased the land. No one realized that some of the tidelands purchased in 1972 actually belonged to the state.
When the discovery was made, some citizens were outraged and insisted that Taylor had trespassed onto state property for years and should pay a substantial sum of money for harvesting shellfish off state lands.
The staff of former Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland negotiated a settlement agreement with Taylor that called for Taylor to receive a five-year lease of the tidelands. The Shelton-based seafood company was required to pay $630,000 in back rent to the state for growing shellfish on the disputed property without a state permit.
In one of his first actions as commissioner of public lands, Goldmark nullified the settlement saying proper procedures were not followed. That triggered two lawsuits from Taylor against the state, in addition to a $4.5 million claim for damages.
Taylor and DNR officials continued their negotiations behind the scenes and in mid-May announced a settlement that calls for Taylor to remove all oysters it planted on the parcel within six months and all geoducks within five years. In addition, the company will pay the Department of Natural Resources $1.5 million and withdraw its lawsuits against the state agency.
Natural Resources will assume uncontested ownership of the tidelands and no new lease with Taylor will be granted on the property. The settlement prevents Taylor Shellfish from replanting oysters and geoducks on the site.
This month, a new concern arose about two acres harvested by Taylor employees in Case Inlet.
“These are lands owned by the public, and we need to make sure their resources are not being taken advantage of or harmed,” Goldmark said. “If someone wants to do business on public land, the proposed use should be evaluated and, if appropriate, authorized — and the public should be compensated.”
Taylor has agreed to pay for a survey to determine the actual boundaries of the area in question.
“Modern GIS (geographical information system) mapping tools have made this easier, and in cooperation with DNR we’re using them to identify other tidelands areas we farm which may need survey verification,” said Bill Taylor.
It’s time to resolve these and other potential disputes.
Under Goldmark’s order to survey all state-owned tidelands, the state agency will compare its own GIS information with that compiled by shellfish companies and state and federal agencies to identify areas in Puget Sound where trespasses are most likely.
Where potential conflicts exist, DNR will then conduct on-the-ground inspection, taking advantage of the extra low tides and long daylight hours of summer. The agency hopes to complete the inventory this summer.
That’s a terrific plan. No one wins when these tideland disputes grab the headlines.