Digging into the history of geoduck harvesting disputes

The recent dispute between geoduck divers and the Suquamish tribal government is nothing new—for such a quiet clam, the geoduck has a history that’s anything but calm.

Fishing rights, more specifically geoduck harvesting, have long been a bone of contention among tribes and non-tribal governments, and have created long running court battles.

But recently the dispute concerning treaty fishing rights in Suquamish has pitted divers against their own tribal government.

Each of the 15 Puget Sound tribes that have treaty rights to the harvestable geoduck — Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Lummi, Makah, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Nooksack, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Puyallup, Skokomish, Squaxin Island, Suquamish, Swinomish, Tulalip, and Upper Skagit — can also govern how they do so.

In 1994 U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled these tribes were entitled to 50 of harvestable geoduck. The tribes and the Department of Natural Resources, under the state’s management plan, determine amount of geoducks they can harvest a year.

Geoducks live in tracts and can be harvested in 17-70 feet of water. The state, according to its commercial geoduck fishery management plan issued in 2000, harvested an average of 1.6 million geoducks a year from 1992 to 1999. They generate about $5-7 million a year for the state. In 2001 the state made $6.4 million in geoduck sales.

According to its website, Suquamish Seafoods Enterprises is allotted about 400,000 pounds a year. And that’s a lot of clams.

The geoduck, a much sought after seafood in Asian markets, can bring in several dollars a pound there. And considering each geoduck can weigh between one and a half to three pounds, its a potential Puget Sound gold mine.

Just how the profits are divvied up among the divers and how many divers there are, the training they receive and the type of employee they are depends entirely on the tribe.

For instance, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has about 55 divers, with the number expected to go to 60 in the near future. It’s taken a few years to get the now “well-oiled machine” up and going said Sharon Purser, natural resources director for the tribe. Their geoduck program started in 1996.

The tribe has six boats geared for diving and allows any tribal member who is at least 18 years old, must be in good standing with the fisheries department, and pass a physical and drug test.

But the biggest goal of the geoduck operation she said is to make sure the safety of the divers is not compromised. A trainer is on the boat at all times, air samples are taken and the boat is inspected each time they go out.

Purser said the tribe has nothing to do with divers marketing their catch to vendors. The tribe charges a 5 percent fish tax and a management tax of about $2,000 she said. Each diver is given an equal amount of pounds to harvest per year.

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