Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) officers, in coordination with the Lummi Police Department, busted an alleged illegal four-county crabbing ring in a sting operation dubbed Operation Argent Sale on January 6 in Blaine.
Officers worked jointly to net 16 commercial fishermen, two wholesale seafood companies and 10 retailers in Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and King counties in the bust. The boat and truck of the prime suspect in Blaine were seized by the Lummi police during the operation.
Officers discovered 60 undocumented undersized crabs, said WDFW Sergeant Russ Mullins. The crabs were being sold under the table to businesses, including restaurants and nail salons for about one-fourth of the price for a mature crab, he said.
It is believed the nail salons were selling the crabs to friends and associates, Mullins said.
While a mature Dungeness crab can average up to $15 dollars, these crabs were being sold for a couple dollars each. One of the wholesale companies was shipping the undocumented crabs to China, Mullins said.
Catching crab before they are mature enough to spawn can upset the balance of the species’ reproduction. Dungeness crab typically spawn twice before they’ve reached the legal catching limit of 6.25 inches. Harvesting them early prevents that spawning process from happening, and puts future harvests at risk.
"Because these are next year’s crab, they are essentially stealing from everyone. Recreational and commercial crabbers alike," Mullins wrote in an e-mail.
“They are stealing from everybody,” Mullins said.
Crabbing in the Strait of Georgia is closed until summer, according to the WDFW website. Commercial crabbing is open until about April 15.
All 16 of the fishermen were based in Whatcom County. No arrests were made during the bust due to the need of follow up investigations, Mullins said.
The crabbing rings in each county do not appear to be organized, Mullins said.
The bust took more than a year and a half of planning to orchestrate and those who purchased the crab are facing charges of unlawful trafficking of wildlife, Mullins said. Some of the charges in connection with the illegal crabbing range from civil charges to class C felonies. WDFW continues to investigate and pursue charges.
Dungeness crabs are not listed under the Washington State Species of Concern Lists, but must be documented for a stable and sustainable industry, WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci said.
“Seafood harvest and sales is 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."
The WDFW and Lummi police will continue to investigate illegal crabbing in the area.