Ruling Favors Coalition of Washington Tribes in Fishing Grounds Dispute

A federal court in Washington state has held that the court’s nearly 50-year-old ruling on tribal fishing grounds was ambiguous, and the tribe is prohibited from using those fishing grounds. The disputed area is near Whidbey Island, north of Seattle between Puget Sound and Everett, Washington — including Saratoga Passage and Skagit Bay (the Disputed Waters). As a result of the ruling, the Lummi Nation is prohibited from using the Disputed Waters.

The litigants include several tribes. On one side of the dispute are Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the Tulalip Tribes, and Upper Skagit Indian Tribe (collectively, the Region 2 East Tribes). On the other side are the Lummi Nation, which the Region 2 East Tribes claimed should not be permitted to use the Disputed Waters. The groups each sought cross-motions for summary judgment regarding the Disputed Waters.

At issue was ambiguity in the 1974 order of Western District of Washington Judge George Hugo Boldt, who described the “usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations” as including “marine areas of Northern Puget Sound from the Fraser River south to the present environs of Seattle.” Later, the Ninth Circuit clarified that language to “include Admiralty Inlet on the western side of Whidbey Island and “exclude[s] the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the mouth of the Hood Canal.” 

In the tribes’ cross motions for summary judgment, the parties asked Chief U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez to determine whether the Lummi fishing grounds include the Disputed Waters. After discussing the 1974 ruling’s language, the court had “little trouble concluding that Judge Boldt’s broad use of ‘the marine areas of Northern Puget Sound’ is ambiguous.” One primary reason was that the court found that Judge Boldt’s earlier ruling merely includes “geographic terms”; it “does not include any geographic anchors” as required under Ninth Circuit precedent.

The court held that when Judge Boldt wrote “the marine waters of Puget Sound,” Boldt did not intend to include the “entire” Puget Sound, but as a prior order noted, “Judge Boldt was necessarily indicating only a portion of that broader Puget Sound.” As such, Judge Martinez held that none of the geographic anchor points supports the argument that Lummi could use the Disputed Waters.

Although the Region 2 East Tribes asked the court to enter a permanent injunction, Judge Martinez denied the request, stating that because the court “concluded that Judge Boldt excluded the Disputed Waters from Lummi’s U&A,” the court “expects that the parties will act in accordance therewith.”