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Puget Sound tribes, shellfish growers settle treaty dispute 5-17-07

BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Commercial shellfish growers won't have to share their harvest with Puget Sound American Indian tribes under a $33 million treaty rights settlement.

The federal and state money will be split among 17 tribes, who won a 1995 federal court ruling entitling them to a share of shellfish grown on some Washington tidelands.

Under the buyout, tribes will give up their harvest rights on certain state and private commercial shellfish beds. The tribes could resume harvesting, however, if the beds are taken out of commercial production.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission approved the settlement Tuesday. A federal judge must endorse the agreement by June 29.

Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms, the West Coast's largest shellfish company, said he was thrilled to have the matter settled.

“This has been a huge anvil hanging over our heads for almost 18 years,” Taylor told the Kitsap Sun newspaper.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he also was pleased to avoid further litigation.

“Of course, there was compromise that the tribes had to accept, some more than others,” Forsman told the Sun. “It's a relief to have this process done.”

To be covered by the settlement, growers must have owned or leased commercial shellfish beds before Aug. 28, 1995 - the date of U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie's treaty ruling.

The agreement also covers 22 commercial shellfish beds owned by the state and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Recreational beaches, such as state parks, are not covered.

Among the last steps in finalizing the agreement was allocating the $22 million in federal money and $11 million in state money among the tribes.

Because most commercial shellfish growing areas are in south Puget Sound and Hood Canal, tribes in those areas will receive the most money, said Tony Forsman, chief negotiator for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Under the agreement, three tribes south of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge will share $15 million, five tribes in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca will share $10 million, and seven tribes in north Puget Sound will share $8 million.

The Legislature approved $11 million for tribal payments last year. Congress has approved the first $7 million of its share, with annual payments of $5 million to continue until 2011.

An additional $1.5 million was put into a contingency fund for tribes that may be assigned treaty rights in the future, such as the Samish Tribe in northern Puget Sound.

“This ends more than 20 years of dispute and allows the tribes money to go and buy lands themselves rather than going on the lands of growers or private individuals,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.