Sustaining Shellfish for the S’Klallam People as a Matter of Policy

Port Gamble S’Klallam biologist Julianna Sullivan evaluates shellfish growth along the protected beaches.

Port Gamble S’Klallam biologist Julianna Sullivan evaluates shellfish growth along the protected beaches.

On the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation, shellfish and other aquatic life are part of the economy, nutrition, identity, and culture of the S’Klallam people. Unfortunately, though, threats to these resources from environmental impacts, over-harvesting, and increases in population have affected access.

This is the story of how this First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) grantee, through support made possible through the Policy Innovation Fund (developed jointly by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association and its Voices for Healthy Kids initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)  is advancing research in shellfish preservation and creating new Tribal policy to protect the health and future of the S’Klallam people.

Shellfish and sustainability

With a reservation located on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has about 1,300 enrolled members, with more than 1,100 living on the reservation. Their land base includes 1,700 acres held in trust by the federal government.

Historically, the S’Klallam were called the Nux Sklai Yem, meaning “Strong People.” An Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest coast, they have lived as far west as the Hoko River, up north into the Straits of Juan de Fuce, south into the Olympic Mountains, and throughout the Puget Sound.

As it has been throughout S’Klallam history, shellfish remains an important source of food and income, as well as a key part of Tribal gatherings, ceremonies, and culture. Moreover, shellfish—rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins—are a part of a S’Klallam traditional diet, which the Tribe encourages its members to partake in as a part of a healthy lifestyle.

A way of life threatened

Julianna Sullivan, a biologist with the Natural Resources Department of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, focuses her work on habitat and resource protection. She says that fish and shellfish—those invaluable Native resources—have prevailed over generations, despite the obstacles continually put before them, most of which began with the arrival of European settlers hundreds of years ago.

The history of the Tribe’s efforts to protect its culture and traditions around fishing and shellfish harvesting span generations: In 1855, the Treaty of Point No Point was signed. While this ceded tribal land to the U.S. government, the treaties reserved tribes’ pre-existing rights, including the right to harvest fish and shellfish at “Usual and Accustomed grounds and stations.” Yet, as the years and decades passed, tribes found their Treaty Rights increasingly marginalized, as native species fell prey to over-harvesting by state, commercial, sport, and other non-Indian fishermen.

This infringement of tribes’ Treaty Rights eventually ended up in the courts. In 1974, a landmark decision in United States v. Washington (more commonly known as The Boldt Decision, named for the judge who presided over the case) reaffirmed the rights of Washington State tribes to fish in their Usual and Accustomed Treaty Rights areas. Judge Boldt interpreted language in the treaties—“in common with”—to mean that tribes had a right to half of the harvestable catch and to act as co-managers of salmon and other fish stocks in partnership with state agencies.

In 1994, Federal Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that the provisions of The Boldt Decision extended to shellfish. This decision also maintained that all public and private tidelands within the case area can be subject to Treaty harvest, except for artificially created beds set aside specifically for non-Indian cultivation purposes.

While these rulings paved the way for tribes, including the Port Gamble S’Klallam, to better protect and sustain the natural resources that have always been a part of their way of life, there are now new challenges to face, especially those related to the impacts of climate change on coastal environments. Rising sea levels, habitat degradation, ocean acidification, and toxic algal blooms are all regular and reoccurring issues that Tribal fisheries are forced to contend with. Modern development also plays a role: stormwater runoff from compacted soils and impervious surfaces deliver pathogens and toxins into delicate aquatic ecosystems.

The floating FLUPSY is a floating raft-like structure that provides for an “all-you-can-eat buffet,” for the growing oysters.

The floating FLUPSY is a floating raft-like structure that provides for an “all-you-can-eat buffet,” for the growing oysters.

Projects to preserve and protect

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe recognizes that they must continually be their own best advocate to ensure that resources and rights are protected for generations to come. To this end, the tribe has a rigorous Natural Resources research and monitoring program, which includes the ongoing creation of projects designed to protect and sustain fish, shellfish, and their respective habitats.

One such recent project involves the Tribe purchasing two Floating Upweller Systems, otherwise known as FLUPSYs. These stationary raft-like structures house shellfish seed and allow them to grow rapidly in ideal conditions before being transferred to protected beaches to enhance existing shellfish stocks.

“Projects like the FLUPSYs allow us to investigate and employ a variety of aquaculture technologies to enhance populations of various species. We’re proud of the success we’ve seen,” says Sullivan.

While this work is promising, sustaining shellfish populations requires not only these types of culturing and research activities, but also minimizing the impacts caused by overharvesting and climate change.

“We are working to take sustainable actions to protect the aquaculture and existing fish and shellfish populations. Policy plays a big role in these efforts,” explains Sullivan.

A policy for change

First Nations’ “Fertile Ground Advocacy Campaign” is a program that supports Native-led advocacy efforts to advance new policies and innovative policymaking approaches that benefit Native American nutrition and health. Through this program, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation on behalf of the Tribe received funding for the “S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project.”

The S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project will enable the Tribe to develop and implement an aquaculture policy that will improve the health and sustainability of shellfish while enhancing education and outreach to the community.

“The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is lucky to have many species of clams, oysters, geoduck, crab, shrimp, and salmon in their Usual and Accustomed area, but the threat to these species is real,” says Hannah Jones, development associate for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation. “There is a need for environmental, economic, and sustainability policy surrounding the Tribe’s precious food resources.”

According to Sullivan, the policy being developed will establish a process wherein proposed aquaculture projects can be evaluated through the Tribe’s various advisory groups with objectives that include:

• Maintenance, enhancement, and accessibility of aquatic resources to Tribal members.
• Limiting competition between aquaculture activities and wild harvest.
• Protection of and limiting access to wild harvest aquatic resources.
• Improving the economic sustainability of shellfish harvesting for Tribal members.
• Creation of educational opportunities that encourage healthy living, and promote cultural continuity and ecosystem health.
• Promotion of projects that improve ecosystem health while protecting the diversity of native species.

Sullivan says that created policies strive to always match the culture of the community and the mission of the Tribe, which is, in part, to “ensure the health, welfare, and economic success of a vibrant community through education, economic development, preservation and protection of a rich culture, traditions, language, homelands, and natural resources.”

Much of the policy work at the heart of the S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project focuses on community outreach and education. For example, funds from the First Nations’ grant will be used for in-the-field and classroom-based education coursework on shellfish biology, waterway health, and the importance of food sovereignty. Sullivan stresses that these teachings are core to helping protect and preserve the S’Klallam way of life.

The S’Klallam people follow a saying: “When the tide is out, the table is set.” According to Sullivan, “This means that the whole tribe recognizes when there is someone out collecting—it’s part of the S’Klallam culture and identity, and it’s a significant element in the health and culture of the S’Klallam people.”

With the new technology, oysters can grow exponentially in size, going from tiny specks to the size of a quarter in just a few weeks.

With the new technology, oysters can grow exponentially in size, going from tiny specks to the size of a quarter in just a few weeks.

The S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project represents progress in Tribal empowerment and creates an effective framework for the future. Jones says she is excited about this work and grateful for the support of First Nations in enabling the Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation to continue to work in food sovereignty through policy building.

“This is work that will affect the way the Tribe sustains, harvests, and addresses threats to a resource my S’Klallam children have grown up on,” Jones says. “Now, the resource may very well continue to be around for my grandchildren because of aquaculture policy.”

Indeed, thanks to the innovative work of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, the table will continue to be set, and a Strong People will stay forever strong.

By Amy Jakober