Squaxin Island Tribe members examines clams on a Vaughn Bay beach this past June. Photo by Sara Thompson, KP News

This past June, the Squaxin Island Tribe conducted its most thorough shellfish survey of Vaughn Bay since 2009. Squaxin shellfish biologist Eric Sparkman and his assistant, tribe member Justin Saez-Garcia, examined each beach to calculate how many clams were living there. Those calculations will determine how many shellfish are harvested over the next several years.

Sparkman and Saez-Garcia explored the bay by boat. After identifying a beach associated with a given parcel of land, Sparkman located the “clam belt”—the band of beach where clams live—using a small rake to take samples from the high-tide mark to the water’s edge. He then placed stakes at 10-foot intervals in a grid throughout the clam belt.

Saez-Garcia removed the clams at each stake and placed them in individual bags using a 1-foot-square template. Those bags were taken back to the Squaxin lab, where the clams were identified, weighed and measured.

This will provide an estimate of the total poundage of harvestable clams on a given beach. From that estimate, the tribe will schedule a harvest for commercially licensed tribal members.

Waterfront owners will be informed of the survey results and any planned harvests by certified mail at least 30 days in advance. The harvests can take place all year and the time of day depends on the tide. Whenever possible, harvests and surveys are scheduled for daylight low tides.

When the harvest occurs, a buy barge operated by Salish Seafoods (a Squaxin-owned company) will arrive with a harvester, a harvest monitor and sometimes a tribal enforcement officer. Each harvester has a catch limit for the three-hour dig. When they are finished, the clams are weighed out on-site and purchased by Salish Seafoods, who then markets them.

The clams on Vaughn Bay are manilas and little necks. Sparkman estimated that about 30,000 pounds a year are harvested from the area, worth approximately $56,000 to tribe members.

Geoducks, which grow wild on intertidal beaches, are difficult to survey and to harvest. The vast majority of tribal geoduck harvests are sub-tidal and conducted from boats.

According to the state’s Shellfish Implementation Plan, which is based on a series of court decisions (see sidebar), the Squaxins can harvest half of the sustainable biomass of clams. To maintain a sustainable harvest rate, the tribe plans to take 50 percent of the estimated clam population on privately owned land once every three years. By comparison, the tribe harvests one-sixth of the population every year on state-owned land to get an equivalent amount of clams.

Before white settlers arrived, several Native American tribes had lived and prospered in South Puget Sound for thousands of years, including the Nisqually and Squaxin Island tribes. Emmett O’Connell, information officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said, “Treaties did not give Indians the rights to fish in Washington state. They confirmed the rights the Indians already had.”

Judy Mills, who lives on Vaughn Bay, leases her tidelands to Dabob Bay Oyster Co. to help pay property taxes. The company deals directly with the Squaxin Tribe.

Mills said that the last clam harvest took place over several months. Harvesters came separately from Dabob and the tribe, each on three separate occasions. She was told how many clams were estimated to be there and how many had been taken once the harvest was complete. “It’s nice to know that we, as landowners, have rights as well,” she said.

“It was not a big impact on our lives,” Mills said. “We still have plenty of clams for our own personal use. Some were left for us when the harvest was done, and this year when we dug over the Fourth of July, we could tell the population had recovered.”

 The history of tribal treaty rights is reviewed in “Understanding Tribal Treaty Rights in Western Washington,” a document published by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (nwifc.org/) and summarized below:By the time westward expansion reached what is now the state of Washington, tribes had few choices. They could fight a war they could not win or cede most of their land and live on reservation lands. Tribes chose not to fight and instead agreed to live on reservations. But they also kept what was most important to them: the right to continue to fish, hunt and gather in all their traditional places.

Through treaties in the 1850s, tribes gave up land in exchange for rights to fish and harvest shellfish. Over the next hundred years, the population grew, nontribal fishing expanded and agriculture and logging impacted habitat. The harvest dropped and the state began to arrest tribal members as they fished off-reservation, despite treaty rights.

The Fish Wars resulted. In the 1960s and ’70s, Native Americans fought for their civil rights, staging “fish-ins” and other acts of civil disobedience. In 1970, the Nisqually Tribe set up a fish camp near Tacoma. When state officials gassed them, Stan Pitkin, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, was there to witness. He filed a suit, U.S. vs. Washington.

Four years later, the Boldt Decision upheld those previously established treaty rights. Judge George Boldt stated that the tribes were entitled to half the harvestable number of salmon returning to or passing through the tribes’ usual and accustomed fishing places. He established the tribes as co-managers of the salmon resource with the state, along with conservation standards that restricted the ability of the state to regulate treaty-related fishing.

In 1994, federal Judge Edward Rafeedie followed in the footsteps of Judge Boldt, ruling that tribes were entitled to half the harvestable shellfish on most Washington beaches. Rafeedie also ruled that shellfish are the same as fish under the treaties.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was established in 1974 to assist member tribes in their role as natural resource co-managers and continues to work with the Squaxins and 19 other Washington state tribes.  

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