After a long-festering dispute, Puget Sound tribes and commercial shellfish growers are scheduled to sign a settlement today that ends the...

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After a long-festering dispute, Puget Sound tribes and commercial shellfish growers are scheduled to sign a settlement today that ends the fight over shellfish harvesting from private land.

It’s been a long time coming, both sides say. But they also say the payoff is potentially big for everyone.

For the tribes, it means giving up rights to harvest shellfish worth $2 million a year from commercial shellfish beds in Puget Sound. But they will get $33 million in federal and state money to buy and lease tidelands for their exclusive use.

For the commercial growers, it means paying $500,000 over 10 years to enhance public tidelands and boost the harvests of clams, oysters and other shellfish for everyone. But they will get certainty in knowing that their private tidelands are theirs to farm and harvest.

“Both sides can have economic prosperity,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, who helped negotiate the agreement and get money for the settlement. “What is good here is tribes now have another way to go out and earn money, and it allows commercial growers to grow and expand their businesses.”

Perhaps more important, the agreement also means peace.

“The significance is huge,” said Bill Dewey, a spokesman for a group of more than 60 Puget Sound commercial shellfish growers who have been fighting the issue in court.

“It ends 18-some-odd years of litigation and fighting with the tribes,” he said, “and allows us to mend our relationships with the people who are our neighbors. We are looking forward to better relationships.”

Rafeedie decision

When tribal leaders, shellfish growers and government officials gather today at a shellfish farm in Shelton to celebrate the settlement — and eat shellfish together — it will mark the end of conflict that at times has been just as heated as more famous Northwest fights over salmon and trees.

The conflict dates to a 1994 federal court ruling called the Rafeedie decision, named for the judge who ruled that tribes have treaty rights to harvest shellfish in Puget Sound, including on private tidelands.

The decision hit like a bomb, ripping open wounds not yet healed from earlier fishing fights.

Some have referred to the shellfish decision as “Boldt II,” referring to the landmark Boldt decision, a 1974 court ruling in which U.S. District Judge George Boldt declared treaties entitled the tribes to half the salmon catch.

For Dicks, there was as much animosity after Rafeedie as there was after Boldt.

“When I ran for Congress in 1976, I would go to meetings and, even as an old Husky linebacker, I was fearful of bodily harm,” Dicks remembered. “These guys were serious. It was one of the hardest times this state has gone through.”

But parts of the shellfish decision turned out to be nearly impossible to implement on the beaches, particularly on private shellfish farms.

Though Indians had the right to wild shellfish, the ruling specifically said they had no right to the fruits of the commercial growers’ labor. There was no way to tell wild shellfish from farmed clams and oysters in the same beds. And even if they could, how could tribal harvesters collect the wild shellfish without damaging the farmed clams and oysters right next to them?

Finally, tribes and shellfish growers saw they had a choice: Spend years battling it out in court, or negotiate a settlement that would give the sides what they both wanted — reliable access to productive shellfish beds.

$33 million pie

But to get there, Dicks had to nail $22 million in federal money. Gov. Christine Gregoire had to find another $11 million in state cash to fund the agreement.

Tribes had to give, too. They are surrendering millions of dollars worth of shellfish on tidelands that many argue never should have been sold to commercial users in the first place.

Lastly, the tribes had to agree among themselves on how to divide the $33 million pie.

“I took some real hits,” said Tony Forsman, shellfish coordinator with the Northwest Indian Fish Commission and a Suquamish tribal member, who helped negotiate the agreement.

“But it was worth it. The alternative was going to be a long-term, expensive and bitter battle.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or