Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


OLYMPIA -April 5, 1999 - State Attorney General Christine Gregoire said she is disappointed with today’s refusal by the U. S. Supreme Court to hear arguments in a case that awarded shellfish harvesting rights to Washington Indian Tribes.

"State agencies, private landowners and shellfish growers were looking to the Court to clarify lower court rulings on treaty rights," Gregoire said. "There are several questions unanswered and we are disappointed the Court declined to review these issues."

Last December, the state petitioned the U. S. Supreme Court to determine whether tribes have rights to an allocation of 50 percent of modern deep-water shell-fisheries such as crab, geoduck and shrimp since those shellfish were rarely used by Indians at treaty time. The state also sought clarification on whether tribes can harvest shellfish from private lands.

The tribes originally filed the case in 1989 as a subproceeding in United States v. Washington, which is the continuing umbrella case that supervises all tribal fishing claims. In December 1994, U. S. District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula Indian Tribes have treaty rights to take, with some limits, shellfish on certain private tidelands, and have rights to half of all deep-water shellfish.

The court’s ruling was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the state, tribes and several private shellfish growers and property owners. In September 1998, the 9th Circuit issued a final order that affirmed Judge Rafeedie’s rulings.

The state appealed the 9th Circuit Court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Puget Sound Shellfish Growers and private land-owners also filed petitions with the U. S. Supreme Court and those were also denied.

Today’s harvesting practices have been in place since the 1996 court order. According to Gregoire the next and most productive step for all parties would be to focus on conflict-free resource preservation and enhancement. In the years ahead, the state will continue working with tribes to establish cooperative management strategies for shellfish resources.

"We have taken this case to the highest court in the country and must now do our best to work within the law as it is," said Gregoire.