The Puyallup Indians plan to dig clams at Titlow Beach, in what state officials say is apparently the first attempt by any tribe to harvest shellfish from a marine preserve in Washington state.
David Winfrey, a shellfish biologist for the Puyallups, said their interest is in butter clams, for which there is no commercial market.
The city-owned beach, about a mile south of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, was declared a marine sanctuary in 1994.
“The tribe is interested in subsistence and ceremonial harvest from Titlow due to the close proximity to the tribal community and ease of access, as well as the apparent healthy population of clams there,” Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud said in a written statement Friday.
“Other harvest area options require long trips and ferry rides or are not available during red tide events,” Sterud wrote.
A notification letter from the tribe June 3 set no timetable, said Byron Olson, administration director for Metro Parks Tacoma.
Clamming at the park is prohibited under state law, and tribes “have respected those (preserves) to date,” said Bill Wood, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish manager.
Sterud’s letter said the Puyallups want “to develop our shellfish harvesting rights to the fullest extent of the law” but added, “all sensitive issues that may exist between tribal harvester and nontribal citizens will be considered very seriously.”
Ron Nilsen, a teacher at Bellarmine Preparatory School, worked for years to get the beach declared a marine sanctuary in which recreational diving is allowed, but removal of plants and shellfish are prohibited.
State wildlife officers, however, are barred under a 3-year-old federal court ruling from enforcing that restriction on the Puyallups and other treaty tribes around Puget Sound.
An appeal of the ruling is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nilsen said he fears clamming could threaten the wealth of marine life - kelp, seaweed, sand crabs, sea cucumbers, shrimp and starfish as well as clams - but wants to learn more about the Puyallups’ plans.
“For us in the schools, the park is open for kids to do research, to learn,” he said.
“If it’s part of their culture as Native Americans to do something along that theme … to keep traditions alive,” he said, “I can’t see where that’s not far from the theme of the park.”