Shellfish ruling surprises farmers

A landmark deal struck between Puget Sound Indian tribes and commercial growers two years ago was meant to end years of rancor over shellfish harvesting rights.

But some growers were surprised to learn this summer that some of their tidelands might not qualify under the settlement, potentially opening them up to tribal harvest.

In 2007, 17 Puget Sound tribes agreed to give up treaty rights to harvest shellfish from commercial shellfish beds, as long as the beds had been actively farmed before Aug. 28, 1995. In return, the tribe got $33 million in state and federal money to buy and lease tidelands for their own use.

Commercial growers submitted documents insisting 864 parcels should be exempt from the settlements, but in papers filed with a federal court in Seattle in June, the tribes objected to half of those.

The settlement stemmed from a 1994 federal court ruling recognizing the tribes’ rights to a share of naturally occurring shellfish grown on Washington tidelands controlled by commercial growers.

Growers who proved they actively farmed shellfish beds before U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie issued his Aug. 28, 1995, order would be exempt from tribal harvest.

Tony Forsman, shellfish and wildlife policy analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said growers had to provide specific documentation that their shellfish beds were actively farmed before that date.

Some growers missed the deadline to submit documents, while others filed improper paperwork, said Forsman, who helped negotiate the agreement. “Some filed stuff that would negate them,” and others didn’t meet the criteria outright, he said.

“What we’re really trying to avoid is fly-by-night operators that are trying to ride the coattails of legitimate operators,” he said.

Forsman said the tribes are going to sit down with growers in coming weeks to discuss the issue. “I think the tribes are going to be reasonable about it,” he said.

Roy M. Taylor, a shellfish grower in Mason County, said he was confused when he learned that all of his parcels had been rejected.

“It’s hard for me to understand,” Taylor said. “Most of us around here entered as much proof as we could get. It’s pretty obvious that there shouldn’t be any problems.” He said his family has been farming the Skookum and Totten inlets in South Sound for years.

“It’s hurting us tremendously,” said Glenn Schreiber, of Schreiber Shellfish in Shelton. The tribes’ attorneys objected to about one-third of his parcels on Hammersley Inlet.

He thought the settlement would clear up matters, but so far it hasn’t, he said. “They have said they’re willing to talk, but no one is certain of any outcomes.”

Bill Dewey, a spokesman for Taylor Shellfish, the state’s largest shellfish company, said the tribes’ objections came as a surprise to many growers.

“The growers through their attorneys worked really hard to put forward land that were eligible to qualify under the criteria, so obviously were disappointed,” Dewey said.

Dewey, also with the Puget Sound Shellfish Growers Legal Defense Fund, said some legitimate companies had trouble coming up with specific documents, such as a farm registration with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife or certification from the state Department of Health.

Attorneys for the tribes, which include the Makah, Lummi, Nisqually, Suquamish, Nooksack and Upper Skagit, among others, said in court papers that they sifted through thousands of pages of documents to determine which growers met the criteria.

They noted they did not object to about 448 parcels.