Washington Court backs Department of Fish and Wildlife

This post was written by staff member Andrew S. Leung.

Down by the docks in the state of Washington, the natives grow restless. In the perpetual war between environmental interests and the interests of commercial fishermen, Mother Nature has won the latest battle. Thurston County Superior Court recently denied the petition of a group of commercial fishermen seeking a restraining order against the enforcement of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ("WDFW") regulations limiting the amount of Dungeness crab harvested per week. Jeremy Pawloski, Court upholds state's limits on crab catch, THE OLMPIAN, available at http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/story/869631.html.

At first glance, the WDFW restrictions do not seem unreasonable, as the current allotment of 4500 pounds per week is nearly double the initial allotment of 2500 pounds per week. Id. Nonetheless, Washington's commercial crab fishermen are disgruntled, claiming that their property rights were violated. Id. Plaintiffs' attorney alluded to an upcoming civil suit in which he planned to sue for economic compensation. Id.

Any suit based on the private citizen's right to the fisheries of a state seems doomed from the onset. Following the time tested doctrine of ratione soli, the Thurston County Superior Court based its decision on the premise that the Dungeness crabs belonged to the state, thus foreclosing the possibility of any property rights to said crabs vested in the private citizen. Washington courts have long held that "...fishermen do not have a 'vested' or 'natural' property [r]ight to fish [or] to take fish...." Puget Sound Gillnetters Ass'n v. Moos, 92 Wash.2d 939 at 947, 603 P.2d 819 at 824 (Wash. 1979). The court also warned that "...we must remember that the state, in its sovereign capacity, owns the fish in the waters of the state... [and] [f]ishermen have no private property rights in taking [fish]." Washington Kelpers Ass'n v. State, 81 Wash.2d 410 at 415, 502 P.2d 1170 at 1172 (Wash. 1972).

Furthermore the Washington Kelpers court found that "...the state owns the fish in its sovereign capacity as the representative of and for the benefit of all people in common." Id., at 416. In the present case, WDFW based the new restrictions on the finding that more than 50% of the crab catch was soft-shelled. See supra Pawloski. A Dungeness crab is soft only period immediate following its molt, but before it spawns for the season.

Despite the probable adverse economic effect upon the class of commercial crab fishermen, the court has reached an appropriate conclusion. The WDFW's finding essentially suggests that approximately half of the adult crabs harvested annually in the state of Washington have not yet had the opportunity to add progeny to state waters. The Washington Kelpers decision provides, "...if you don't regulate to reduce the total catch along the line, then your spawning escapement will suffer and your subsequent production will go down." Id., at 419. For now, Washington's commercial crab fishermen will have to tighten their belts so that future generations of crab fishermen will have something to wrap theirs around.