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Tribes, growers celebrate shellfish settlement

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SHELTON, Wash. (AP) - Puget Sound tribes and commercial shellfish growers celebrated a $33 million treaty rights settlement July 6, with a ceremonial signing of the agreement that ends years of legal dispute.

Tribal leaders and growers gathered at a shellfish farm in Shelton with Gov. Christine Gregoire and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks to eat shellfish and celebrate the settlement, which was approved by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in May and by a federal judge in June. The official agreement was signed in late June, according to Tony Forsman, chief negotiator for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The settlement stems from a 1994 federal court ruling entitling the tribes to a share of shellfish grown on some Washington tidelands.

Under the settlement, the tribes will give up their rights to harvest shellfish worth $2 million a year from commercial shellfish beds in the Puget Sound region. In return, they get to split $33 million in federal and state money to buy and lease tidelands, giving them rights to take all the shellfish that come under their ownership.

Commercial growers will also pay $500,000 over 10 years to enhance public tidelands and boost the harvests of clams, oysters and other shellfish for everyone.

In addition to the growers cited in the settlement, 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.

Growers not named specifically in the settlement must show they owned or leased commercial shellfish beds before Aug. 28, 1995, if they want their beds to be considered exempt from tribal harvests.

''Both sides can have economic prosperity,'' said Dicks, D-Wash., 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.''

Because most commercial shellfish growing areas are in south Puget Sound and Hood Canal, tribes in those areas will receive the most money.

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

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.

Bill Dewey, a spokesman for more than 60 Puget Sound commercial shellfish growers who have been fighting the issue in court, said the settlement ''allows us to mend our relationships with the people who are our neighbors.''

''We are looking forward to better relationships,'' he said.