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WDFW Enforcement is divided into two patrol sections, Marine and Land, although responsibilities often overlap and the two sections commonly assist each other. The following are real life events that provide a snapshot of fish and wildlife enforcement activity in Washington State. These examples show the diversity of issues that Fish and Wildlife Police Officers ("Game Wardens") encounter while protecting your natural resources, but are by no means all encompassing of our many accomplishments. All violations are considered alleged unless a conviction has been secured.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Great Shellfish Heist - Busted!

This particular ongoing case isn’t just about  introducing poached shellfish into local and out-of-state markets, it also involves a real risk to public safety. The investigation began in 2010 with a tip from a shellfish shipper. His supplier was up to no good - some of his customers had reportedly gotten sick from eating oysters.

At the center of the stage is Rodney Clark, owner of G&R Quality Seafoods in Quilcene Bay, who allegedly orchestrated the theft of more than $700,000 worth of oysters and clams from public and private beaches in the Hood Canal area. The poachers took advantage of the cover of darkness, stealing from whichever beach held enough product for a profitable outing. Law enforcement personnel were forced to spend many long nights tracking their movements, sometimes in weather so horrible nobody in their right mind should have been outside in it. But then, the poachers weren’t in their right minds. Greed and money almost forced our team to switch to search and rescue mode during surveillance as they watched a barge full of stolen shellfish flip over in a storm. But the thieves were able to swim to shore….. wet, cold, and lucky. The product was then laundered with the aid of falsified paperwork and widely marketed.

In the shellfish industry, paperwork and record keeping practices are crucial. In order to commercially harvest shellfish, proof of beach or product ownership must be provided to the Department of Health. DOH issues an operator’s license and a certification number unique to the beach you wish to harvest – provided, of course, the shellfish have been tested and are free from contaminants or pollutants. The issued certification number tracks the product back to its origin and follows each sack or container of shellfish through the entire market place. If an illness or outbreak occurs, the product is pulled from shelves and is easily traced back to the offending beach, which can then be shut down...

If the paperwork is falsified, however, the ability to trace the shellfish back to its beach is effectively defeated, sending health officials on a potential goose chase. Clams and oysters in this case came from beaches that could have been certified if there was a lawful claim. Since it was all stolen, an alternate certification number associated with a played out lease was used instead.

Shellfish don’t have to come from unsanitary waters to be toxic to humans. Handling and refrigeration is also critical to ensuring people don’t get sick. Our observation was that these folks didn’t care. The poachers' luck ran out as investigators closed in. Armed with probable cause that was painstakingly developed under challenging conditions, WDFW Police served a search warrant at the home and business of Mr. Clark. Clams and oysters with false certification tags were found on the property in the back of a van with no refrigeration.

This is not Clark's first run-in with the law. He has already served a ten-year prison sentence in the Montana Penitentiary for manufacture of narcotics. Clark was carted away to jail for possession of firearms as a convicted felon, as the investigation really got underway. Reams of files were analyzed, other suspects were interviewed, and markets were identified and contacted. After months of work, the King County Prosecutor's Office charged Clark and 11 employees with theft and trafficking in stolen property. On November 22, 2011, Clark faced 17 felony charges and a potential of seven years in prison if convicted. The case is now awaiting trial.

Please Note:
By law, harvested uncertified clams must be destroyed to prevent them from entering the market place. Here, an officer is seen dumping the stolen shellfish at a landfill. What a waste!

2 comments:

  1. While I want to say "well done" why couldn't the oysters and clams be dropped into non-harvest waters?

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    Replies
    1. State law requires that we destroy/dispose of shellfish if it is deemed unsafe for human consumption. See RCW 69.30.110 and WAC 246-282-110.

      While our officers try hard to minimize wastage, they can be constrained, depending on the investigative circumstances. Determining harvest location, health certifications (or lack of them) and proper handling all play a factor in turning shellfish into human consumption. In this case, an elaborate laundering scheme involved falsified paperwork, which challenged our ability to determine exact harvest location. The shellfish seized from the unrefrigerated truck was not fit for consumption, and if returned to the water, even closed waters, may have been harvested and consumed at a health risk.

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