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Fishing Rights Between Olympic Peninsula Tribes At Stake in U.S Court

A federal court will hear oral arguments Monday in Seattle, in a case that pits the United States against the State of Washington. It has to do with who gets to take how much fish.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez has set aside 3 weeks in his calendar to hear issues involved.

Three tribes are mentioned in the current litigation: the Makah, the Quileute and the Quinault Indian Nations. They’re fighting with each other.

The dispute is about their treaty rights with the government and how much fish they get to take from the waters off the west coast.

The history of this case stretches back more than a century. It all relates to the famous Boldt Decision, named after judge Hugo Boldt.

If you're following this case, there's a term you should know about: It's the concept of usual and accustomed areas. Professor Bob Anderson, who teaches law at the University of Washington, says these are specific places, "where they have traditionally fished at treaty time.”

Treaty time was more than a century ago. 

“And so these are areas that were at issue in 1974, when Judge Boldt decided the original US vs. Washington case, which was filed by the US against the state, which was not allowing tribal members to fish under their treaties that they had signed in 1855 and 56," Anderson says.   

As the law stands now, the US and the tribes each get up to half of the catch, which is complicated.

“It’s a very fact-intensive proceeding that will result in the judge drawing some lines on a map, to delineate the boundaries where the Quileute and Quinault are entitled to fish, in relation to the Makah," Anderson said.

Also at issue is figuring out how much pacific whiting, salmon, halibut and cod passes through these areas. At stake are livelihoods, civil rights to fish and the need to protect everyone’s resources.

Anderson, who himself is a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, says he hopes the parties in this case will quietly reach a settlement. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to