For years, tribal shellfish harvests in Puget Sound have sparked controversy. Northwest tribes and Washington State negotiated over treaty rights to collect shellfish until talks broke down, and the matter went to court. A 1998 court ruling settled the matter, reaffirming the rights of tribes to harvest “in common” with non-Native harvesters, including on private tidelands.
On June 1, the owners of tidelands along Silverdale’s Dyes Inlet and Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay shared the fruits of tribal shellfish harvests as they gathered with members of the Suquamish Tribe to enjoy a seafood feast at the Tribe’s House of Awakened Culture in Suquamish.
Some came to learn about opportunities to partner with the Tribe’s shellfish program; others to celebrate or deepen their ongoing relationships with the Suquamish people. Others may have been attracted by what was on the menu: geoduck chowder, baked clams and crab, and the setting overlooking Puget Sound.
“This event was created to express our gratitude to the owners of tideland properties where Suquamish Tribe members exercise their treaty rights to harvest clams,” said Rob Purser, Suquamish Tribe Fisheries Director.
The Tribe first began holding these events in 2014, inviting tideland owners to gatherings at the Silverdale Yacht Club Broiler. This year was the second year the event was held in Suquamish.
A tribal tradition continues
Members of the Suquamish Tribe have harvested shellfish in Puget Sound for thousands of years. The archaeological record shows evidence of clam, oyster, and other shellfish harvesting over the past 2,000 years at more than 30 sites in Suquamish ancestral territory, according to tribal archaeologist Dennis Lewarch. Oral histories also show shellfish have been an important component of the Tribe’s diet, commerce, and ceremonial practices across the generations.
In recent years, pollution, tideland privatization, population growth, and disputes over fishing rights limited the Tribe’s access to shellfish resources. It was not until after lengthy court proceedings and sustained cleanup efforts that tribal members could resume shellfish harvests.
In 1998, Federal District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled tribal members have the right to harvest 50 percent of available shellfish on private tidelands, except those cultivated by private parties.
Shellfish are very sensitive to pollution levels, so it took the sustained effort of the Tribe in collaboration with state and local governments, the U.S. Navy, and interested members of the public to significantly reduce sewage input into Puget Sound. Tribal harvests finally resumed in 2004 in Dyes Inlet. And just last year – after a 27-year hiatus – tribal clam diggers returned to harvest on the shores of Liberty Bay.
Longtime waterfront residences have welcomed the return of tribal harvesters to their traditional fishing grounds.
“I do dig clams for myself,” said Ron Lund, tideland owner, “but there are so many clams down there I couldn’t eat them all.”
Harvesting on a given tideland typically occurs once every three years, for approximately four hours during a low tide.
“There is no damage whatsoever to our beach,” said Art Nelson, tideland owner. “After a couple of tides, all signs of digging are gone.”
Following a tribal harvest, tidelands recover naturally. Larval clam in the water column find their way to harvested beaches, where they settle and repopulate the shellfish bed. In certain cases, the Tribe augments recovery by planting hundreds of thousands of juvenile clams directly on the tideland.
Some tideland owners have opted to enter into a closer working relationship with Suquamish clam diggers via a lease agreement with the Tribe. In these cases, the Tribe harvests both the property owner’s and the tribal share of clams, and the owner receives a portion of the earnings from the sale of the clams.
Following harvest, tribal staff reseed the beach at no cost to the owner. The enhanced clams grow to harvestable size in approximately three years and act as ecosystem engineers, reducing excess nitrogen in the water and improving overall water quality.
“We’re very happy to share this,” said Art Nelson, tideland owner, “it’s also a lot of fun for us to watch when they come down. They can really dig clams!”