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Wildlife detectives bust shellfish poachers in Washington state

August 4, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
In Washington state, clams, oysters and mussels are being poached from the Puget Sound and sold for thousands of dollars. The most in-demand of these is the geoduck, which can sell for $150 a pound. Special correspondent Katie Campbell of KCTS in Seattle reports for EarthFix on why this illegal trade is so hard to stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, when you hear the word poaching, you might think of trophy hunters killing big game in Africa. But millions of dollars are made in an illegal trade much closer to home.

Katie Campbell of KCTS in Seattle has the story. She reports for the public media project EarthFix.

KATIE CAMPBELL: This is a bust, but it’s not what you think.

WOMAN: Right there. Right there. Right there. Stop! Stop!

KATIE CAMPBELL: These officers are breaking up a black market of illegally harvested shellfish clams, oysters, mussels. Poachers are stealing them from Washington’s Puget Sound.

MIKE CENCI, Deputy Chief, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: The clams are stolen.

KATIE CAMPBELL: And selling them for thousands of dollars, says Washington Fish and Wildlife Deputy Chief Mike Cenci.

MIKE CENCI: Fish and Wildlife police officers are the only thing standing between bad guys that poach bivalve shellfish from areas that they shouldn’t and human health and safety.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Officers are on patrol day and night, searching for poachers, staking out businesses and collecting evidence. They say cheating the system is much easier than policing it.

Shellfish are a high-risk food because they’re filter feeders. They suck in whatever is in the water, toxins, harmful pathogens or even pollutants. Thousands of people get sick from tainted shellfish each year in the United States. Some even die.

The difference between poached seafood and legal seafood isn’t something you can see. For clues, Washington Fish and Wildlife Sergeant Erik Olson has to check the paperwork.

ERIK OLSON, Sergeant, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: So, do you have any paperwork for this?

WOMAN: I should have.

ERIK OLSON: Do you keep the containers?

WOMAN: No, sir.

ERIK OLSON: You don’t keep the box or anything that it comes in?

KATIE CAMPBELL: The paperwork is meant to ensure that shellfish can be traced back to the beach from where it was harvested. It’s a low-tech process based on the honor system.

BILL DEWEY, Taylor Shellfish Farms: If a customer wants to know where these oysters are from, how do you know?

KATIE CAMPBELL: Bill Dewey works for Taylor Shellfish Farms. He is also chair of the committee that develops the nationwide rules for tracking shellfish.

BILL DEWEY: So, when we do a harvest on the beach, the harvesters generate a handwritten tag with all of the information about the date, the bed that it’s harvested, and all of our company information, our certification number and so on.

KATIE CAMPBELL: These tags accompany the shellfish from the beach to the processing plant, all the way to the marketplace, supposedly guaranteeing these shellfish are safe to eat.

BILL DEWEY: If you’re in a restaurant and you order oysters, you should be able to ask your waitstaff to see the tag that came with that shellfish when it was delivered to the restaurant.

KATIE CAMPBELL: But a system based on trust is also vulnerable to abuse.

BILL DEWEY: If people want to sell illegal shellfish, you can do it. You can game the system.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Cheating the system is as easy as creating a fake tag.

BILL DEWEY: There’s got to be somebody out there writing tickets once in a while to keep everybody in check and make sure you’re doing it right.

ERIK OLSON: You don’t have one ounce of labeling anywhere throughout this place. OK? If you cannot prove where it came from and that it’s safe for human consumption, I can’t let you sell it.

KATIE CAMPBELL: With thousands of markets and restaurants in the Seattle area alone, Olson says if he had more time or more officers, he could file a felony-level shellfish violation pretty much every day.

What’s even more alarming is that Fish and Wildlife investigations are finding the shellfish black market is operating through businesses that have little to do with seafood, places like nail salons, gas stations or even a video store.

MIKE CENCI: Frankly, if someone would’ve told me that an Asian video store would be a place that shellfish would be trafficked, I wouldn’t have believed them. And we know now that any business, any storefront could be potentially involved in the seafood trade.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Of all the shellfish that sell on the black market, one clam is above the rest: the geoduck. Most Americans have never heard of, much less eaten, a geoduck.

So, why is there such a thriving black market for their meat? Before we answer that, let’s get one thing out of the way. It may be spelled geoduck, but it’s pronounced gooey-duck. Geoducks are the largest burrowing clam in the world. Predominantly found in Puget Sound, they can live up to 160 years; that’s one of the longest life spans in the entire animal kingdom.

An adult geoduck weighs around one to three pounds, and in Asia their meat is a prized delicacy. About 90 percent of the geoducks harvested in the U.S. are sent across the Pacific. That’s about $70 million worth a year. In China, geoduck was once reserved for elite banquets, but China’s growing middle class has developed a taste for the delicacy and the disposable income to afford it.

This rising demand has sent geoduck retail prices to as high as $150 per pound, and soaring prices create a big incentive for poachers. Here’s how it works. Harvesting wild geoduck is allowed only in certain areas of Puget Sound; the state auctions off each area, but there’s a still limit on how much can be dug up within each area.

The man who decides that limit is Bob Sizemore. He’s Washington State’s lead geoduck research scientist.

BOB SIZEMORE, Research Scientist, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: You need to be very careful with the harvest rate. Basically, if you cut down a forest, it takes a very long time to come back.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Each time an area is harvested, it takes about 40 years for the geoduck population to recover. That’s why harvest rate is 2.7 percent; anything higher wouldn’t be sustainable.

Out in Puget Sound, Sizemore and his team count geoducks before and after an area is harvested. But with just five divers, they’re only able to survey about 3 percent of areas geoducks are found.

BOB SIZEMORE: We still see signs of illegal harvest. We see signs of poaching, and we don’t find any recovery.

KATIE CAMPBELL: On any given night, tons of fresh seafood pass through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It’s a bottleneck where Fish and Wildlife officers can check the cargo as it’s moving through.

ERIK OLSON: The overwhelming majority of that product is, in fact, geoduck. It’s just thousands of pounds. If shellfish is not accompanied by a Department of Health certification tag, then I am required to seize that.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Officers must look at each tag to find out whether the shellfish came from an open area and were harvested by a licensed harvester.

ERIK OLSON: That is not salmon.

KATIE CAMPBELL: There’s no electronic system or any quick way to determine if the information on the tags is accurate.

ERIK OLSON: It looks like some kind of rockfish filet.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Everything must be hand-checked. Officers confiscate seafood that’s not properly tagged, but they’re only able to check a fraction of the boxes, and there’s no telling how much illegal shellfish slips through.

ERIK OLSON: If the incentive is there — and, trust me, it’s there — we’re talking big money — then people are going to take advantage of the holes in the system. And right now, we have holes that you could drive a semitruck through.

KATIE CAMPBELL: For the NewsHour, I’m Katie Campbell in Seattle.