Illegal crabbing operation busted

Published on Wed, Jan 15, 2014 by Quinn Welsch

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Officers from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) and Lummi Nation Police Department busted part of an alleged four-county crabbing operation, nabbing 16 Whatcom County fishermen, two wholesale companies and 10 retailers, on January 6 in Blaine.

Officers discovered 63 undocumented and undersized crabs at the bust, dubbed Operation Argent Sale, which is French for “dirty money.” A search warrant was served at the primary suspect’s home in Bellingham where an additional 80 crabs were found. Lummi police also seized the primary suspect’s truck and boat during the operation.

The crabs were being sold under the table to businesses in Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and King counties for about one-fourth the price of a mature crab. A mature Dungeness crab can be sold for about $15 on average while these crabs were only being sold for a couple of dollars.

The businesses involved include restaurants and nail salons and one wholesale company that was shipping the crabs to China and California, said WDFW Sgt. Russ Mullins. The crabs at the nail salons were likely being sold to friends and associates of the businesses, he said.

“This is noteworthy because of the number of people and businesses involved,” Mullins said.

All 16 of the fishermen involved in the bust were tribal. However, all of the businesses were non-tribal, Mullins said. So far, no arrests have been made, due to the need for follow up investigations.

Catching crabs before they are mature enough to spawn can upset the balance of the species’ reproduction. Dungeness crabs must be 6.25 inches before they can be legally harvested, according to the WDFW website. Typically, Dungeness crabs will have spawned twice by the time they reach the legal size. Harvesting the crabs early limits the growth of the future Dungeness population.

Dungeness crabs are not listed as threatened in Washington, but they must be documented to maintain a sustainable industry, said WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci.

“Seafood harvest and sales are a highly regulated industry,” Cenci said. “[There are] many stakeholders in the community that have an interest in them financially and recreationally. Everyone is obligated to document their catch.”

Recreational crabbing in Puget Sound is currently closed; however, commercial crabbing is open until mid-April.

Charges against the businesses may include the illegal trafficking of animals. Charges against the fishermen may include possession of undersized crab and failure to report commercial harvest.

Charges filed against the tribal fishermen by the Lummi Nation may be more severe, Mullins said.

“Their penalties surpass what anyone would get in state court,” he said. “The Lummi tribe has been very aggressive in their prosecution.”

Search warrants were also served at a business in Bellingham, a Ferndale residence and a Snohomish County residence, but yielded no results.

The WDFW has not begun interviews, but based on past history the investigation may lead to a larger problem, Mullins said. 

For now, the crabbing operations in each county do not appear to be organized and the operation in Blaine is believed to be limited to Whatcom County, he said.

“It’s going to take days or weeks,” Mullins said. “It’s hard to tell where we’ll end up.”

One of the bust’s major successes was the cooperation between the Lummi Nation Police Department and the WDFW, Mullins said. 

“It hasn’t always been a great relationship, but this time around has been successful,” he said.

The WDFW is investigating the illegal trafficking of undocumented halibut as well, Mullins said. 

WDFW will continue to investigate illegal crabbing and fishing in the area, and more information may be available in coming weeks.