SHELTON, Washington (SmallTownPapers) -- About 16 elders from the Squaxin Island Tribe gathered together the morning of May 23 at Little Skookum Inlet and spent four hours digging for manila clams.

Together, they harvested 3,000 pounds of clams for commercial purposes.

"This is fun," said Harold Crenshaw. "It's kind of in your blood, you know?"

Many of the people at the dig were harvesting clams to help supplement their income, others were saving for vacations.

"When I retire, hopefully I'll be able to do it more," said Nancy Moore, who said she goes on tribal shellfish digs to earn "fun money."

While the digs are fun for participants, they're also serious business.

Each person digging May 23 had a limit of 180 pounds of clams in the four-hour dig.

Tribal shellfish harvests happen as often as twice a week at local beaches. Tribal members can harvest for commercial purposes, as they did last Thursday, for personal consumption, and for ceremonial purposes.

Diggers who took the limit could walk away with $335, said Salish Sea Foods representative Jason Ryan, who bought the manila clams from the dig. Ryan said he expected the entire 3,000 pounds harvested May 23 to cost $5,500 wholesale.

According to treaties signed in the 1850s, tribes have a right to 50 percent of harvestable shellfish on public and private tidelands in the state. Thursday's harvest was on Taylor Shellfish tideland.

The tribes conduct regular shellfish population surveys to determine how much shellfish they can harvest.

Each bag sold from the commercial harvest was tagged by a representative of the tribe's natural resources department to certify where the shellfish came from, when they were harvested, and that it was harvested legally.

To ensure these laws are complied with, Squax-in Island Police officers work closely with the tribe's natural resources department and attend all shellfish digs.

"Mostly (it's) just to make sure that the ... regulations are followed ... the boundaries are adhered to," said Sgt. Brett Fish of the Squaxin Island Police Department. "On a beautiful day on the beach, it's good work."

In addition to monitoring legal digs, officers from the Squaxin Island Policedopatrolsand work with owners of tide-flats to prevent poaching.

"It does happen, but it's not very common," Fish said. "We can't be everywhere but if we get good reporting we have good response time. You're risking a lot for a couple hundred dollars in shellfish ... it's a handful that'll ruin it for everyone else."

Fish said a lack of understanding is often to blame when disputes arise over tribal shellfish harvest on private beaches.

"A lot of these people have (harvesting) areas on their property they don't even know about," he said. "It ends up working out. It's a chance for me to pass out business cards and get eyes on the water."

While Thursday was a cold and rainy day, Liz Kuntz said it was a good day for harvesting clams.

"It's actually a good day because it's not too hot," she said. "I like being out here with my tribal members."

Moore said shellfish digs have always been a big part of her life.

"We used to come out and do the night tides ... get home, change, go to work," she said. "When it's good digging, you can't beat it."

"On a beautiful day on the beach, it's good work."

Sgt. Brett Fish, Squaxin Island Police Department

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