OLYMPIA, Wash. — A middle-aged man and woman drive a navy blue pickup to the back of a Chinese restaurant on the city’s outskirts. The woman gets out to talk to a man who is coming out the back door.
Soon, the man goes inside and returns with a scale. The woman retrieves a bag heavy with clams from the back of the truck.
They trade clams for cash in a manner so casual it seems they’ve done this before. They have. The difference this time is the hidden camera that’s captured their transaction.
“The whole thing happens in less than four minutes,” says Detective Wendy Willette while reviewing the footage. “That’s exactly what we were looking for.”
Willette is part of an investigative team with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. She’s in charge of an operation to unravel a shellfish black market that has sprung up in South Puget Sound.
Valued at $270 million, Washington's farmed shellfish industry is tops in the nation.
“They’re gold on the beach,” says Lt. Paul Golden, who oversees the WDFW’s Statewide Investigative Unit.
Shellfish are also an easily exploited commodity. Anyone with a bucket and shovel can harvest them on beaches when the tide is out. Fish and wildlife officials estimate Washington’s fish and shellfish are poached and trafficked more than any other natural resources.
Clams, mussels and oysters are filter feeders. They absorb whatever is in the water — like biotoxins and pollutants that can cause illness or even death in people who eat them. Thousands of people in the United States get sick from tainted shellfish every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
It’s because of this public health threat that the industry developed a certification program to track shellfish.
“You can track shellfish from whatever point back to where it’s harvested,” says Rick Porso of the Washington Department of Health. “It’s one of the most traceable foods.”
As soon as commercial shellfish are collected off the beach, harvesters must write out a certification tag that stays with the shellfish as it travels from the beach to the consumer.
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.
“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,” says Bill Dewey, a shellfish industry representative who has led efforts to set nationwide rules for tracking shellfish.
If someone gets sick from eating tainted shellfish, the certificate system is supposed to help health inspectors trace it back to the exact section of beach where it was harvested. That area is immediately closed and any other shellfish that were harvested there are recalled.
This system, based on trust, is also vulnerable to abuse. Cheating the system is as easy as creating a fake tag.
“If people want to sell illegal shellfish, you can do it. You can game the system,” says Dewey.
State enforcement officials say they’re out to protect the businesses that operate legally, to safeguard consumers from tainted shellfish, and to protect natural resources.
“Fish and wildlife police officers are the only thing standing between bad guys who poach bivalve shellfish from areas that they shouldn't, and human health and safety,” says Mike Cenci, Washington Fish and Wildlife deputy chief.
If you cannot prove where it came from and that it’s safe for human consumption, I can’t let you sell it.
How do you tell a legally harvested clam from an illegally harvested clam? Trick question. You can’t. There’s nothing visibly distinguishable. Scientific tests can’t provide answers either.
But Erik Olson must try. It’s his job. He’s a sergeant in the WDFW’s marine division. He inspects seafood markets and restaurants.
On a rainy morning, Olson drives the streets of West Seattle and parks in front of a market with a sign proclaiming “Live Seafood!”
“In law enforcement,” Olson says, “that’s what we call a clue.”
Inside he scans the seafood counter. There’s an array of fresh and frozen fish and shellfish. None of it is labeled with anything other than the price. Stacked plastic foam trays of frozen mussel meat catches Olson’s eye. He asks to see the paperwork that shows the mussels’ origin. State law requires businesses to keep their certification tags on file for 90 days.
The market manager says the mussels were harvested overseas. He doesn’t have the required paperwork.
“How am I supposed to know this wasn’t harvested right out here in the Puget Sound?” Olson asks the manager. “If you cannot prove where it came from and that it’s safe for human consumption, I can’t let you sell it.”
Olson seizes the mussels and cites the owner for failing to have the proper paperwork and labeling. The owner seems shocked to be receiving a ticket.
“You mean I have to go to court?” the manager asks.
“All criminal violations are mandatory court appearances,” Olson says.
During this one eight-hour day, Olson inspects seven sites and writes two criminal citations. With thousands of markets and restaurants selling seafood in the Seattle area alone, Olson says he could file a felony-level shellfish violation pretty much every day — if he had the time.
If you cannot prove where it came from and that it’s safe for human consumption, I can’t let you sell it.
Detective Willette’s hidden camera captured some of the first concrete evidence for her investigation, but it didn’t capture the pickup’s license plate. So, the identities of the woman and man inside the vehicle remained a mystery.
While searching through the list of previous violators, Willette locates a husband-and-wife team that looks similar to her mysterious shellfish-trafficking couple. They also happen to own a blue Chevy pickup. Officers had caught the couple just a few months before harvesting clams in the middle of the night from a bay near an open sewer outfall.
Her suspects are Caucasian. They’re known methamphetamine users and the male suspect had been implicated on several occasions for trafficking stolen timber.
“Between the two of them, they’re up to around 75 to 80 different criminal violations in the last 10 years,” Willette said.
The suspects fit a general profile for the kind of people officers say they catch poaching and trafficking the natural resources of the Pacific Northwest. They’re often connected to other criminal enterprises, especially drug-related crimes.
Now with their identities in hand, Willette could arrest the couple. But she doesn’t want the investigation to end there. She suspects there are more poachers and more buyers involved in this black market.
“Our goal is to net as many people as possible so that when we do decide to move forward, we’re able to get the biggest bang for our buck,” Willette says.
Of all the shellfish that sell on the black market, one clam is above the rest — the geoduck, or Panopea generosa.
Sometimes called the “King Clam,” the geoduck is the largest burrowing bivalve mollusk in the world. The name, pronounced ‘gooey-duck,’ is derived from the Nisqually Tribe’s word meaning “dig deep.” These saltwater clams are most common in British Columbia and Washington.
The hefty clams bury themselves a few feet deep within sand. There they stay for the next 100 years, doing little more than stretching their meter-long, fleshy siphon up into the water column to feed on phytoplankton.
In shallows when tides have retreated, people dig up geoduck clams with shovels. In deeper areas, scuba divers spray high-pressure hoses into the seafloor to unearth them.
Wholesale geoduck prices at Puget Sound docks have more than doubled from $4 per pound in 2006 to as much as $15 per pound today, WDFW reports. With the average adult geoduck weighing one to three pounds, a good geoduck diver can harvest thousands of dollars worth in a few hours.
What’s Driving the Geoduck Black Market
“When you're harvesting geoducks, it's like picking up $20 bills,” says Bob Sizemore, lead research scientist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
About 90 percent of the geoducks harvested in the United States are sent to Asia, where it’s served raw at sushi restaurants in Japan, used in soups and stews in Korea, or cooked in a fondue-style hot pot in China.
Rising demand, especially among China’s growing middle class, has sent geoduck retail prices in Asia to as high as $150 per pound. Those soaring prices have created an incentive for poachers back in Puget Sound, giving rise to an international black market.
Washington’s legal commercial harvest of wild geoduck generates $15–20 million in annual revenue for the state. The Washington Department of Health certifies geoduck beds, making sure they’re safe to harvest and aren’t contaminated with high levels of toxins or pollutants. Then Sizemore and his team of WDFW researchers identify harvestable beds at depths of between 18 and 70 feet. And finally the Department of Natural Resources selects tracts to put up for auction.
The total amount of geoduck catch reported by fishers (landings) has remained fairly steady since a 2.7 percent harvest rate was established in the 1980s. At the same time, the overall value of geoduck prices has risen dramatically. Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Learn How to Cook a Geoduck
Inside Washington’s Geoduck Auction
Willette ultimately brought in the the South Puget Sound shellfish-trafficking couple and gave them a choice: Risk felony convictions, hefty fines and jail time — or help her investigation.
They opted to become confidential informants. They revealed the ins and outs of their illegal shellfish trade.
Despite the black-market pressure, Washington’s wild geoduck fishery has been called one of the best-managed fisheries in the world. That’s in part, officials say, because of the ongoing scientific research that informs the harvest limit.
From a WDFW lab in Olympia, Sizemore and his team study geoducks by analyzing their shells. They cut cross-sections and look at them under a microscope to determine how old they are and what kind of a life they’ve had.
“They have rings that you can count, just like a tree,” says Sizemore, turning a hard white shell over in his hands. “Some of these clams are 160 years old. They were alive when Abraham Lincoln was president.”
The rings reveal their growth rates. And that information helps Sizemore’s team decide how many can safely be harvested. These slow-growing, long-living clams have been called Puget Sound’s old-growth trees.
“If you cut down a forest, it takes a very long time to come back,” Sizemore says. “So you need to be very careful with the harvest rate.”
Puget Sound has hundreds of millions of geoducks, a seemingly endless supply. But each time a geoduck bed is harvested, it takes about 40 years for the population there to recover. That’s why the total allowable harvest rate is 2.7 percent — anything higher would not be sustainable.
The buttons below represent increases in geoduck harvesting. Click on the buttons under the chart to see how quickly the population of geoducks can decrease.
Note: The chart is a simple linear relationship projection and doesn't reflect reality. Real impacts may be more or less dramatic.
“Ten percent sounds like a pretty low number, but for a very long-lived animal with very low natural mortality, 10 percent is huge,” Sizemore says. “In 10 years, you would wipe out the population.”
In addition to studying geoducks in the lab, Sizemore’s team of five divers check on geoduck beds in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They dive 150 times per year, but they’re only able to visit about three percent of the geoduck harvest areas.
“Our ability to detect (poaching) is pretty low. But even given that, we still see signs of illegal harvest,” Sizemore says.
The WDFW divers return to geoduck beds about every 10 years to check on how the population is recovering. Normally they would see geoduck numbers increasing. But in recent years, they’ve seen numbers staying the same or continuing to fall. And they’ve also seen signs of poaching: a sandy seafloor pock-marked by recent digs and littered with bright white fragments of geoduck shells.
Poachers have been known to leave bags of geoduck clams on the seafloor to retrieve later. Sometimes they hide their bounty in the hulls of their boats. Or they dive in the middle of the night in secluded coves where there’s little chance of being caught.
Within the last few years, WDFW dive surveys in South Puget Sound found that 10 out of 16 tracts had diminishing or negative recovery rates. Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
It’s past 11:00 p.m. on a rainy January night in Puget Sound. Clouds blot out the moon and the stars, making it nearly impossible to tell where the sky ends and the water begins. A boat is running blind through the inky blackness — no onboard lights, no radar signals announcing the location. The motor’s hum and the faint spray of bioluminescence in the boat’s wake is the only evidence of its presence.
The boat is a WDFW patrol vessel and Sgt. Erik Olson is at the helm. His partner, Officer Carly Peters, is peering through a pair of night-vision binoculars, calling out directions to avoid floating logs or buoys.
“We’re looking for anything and everything on the water tonight,” Olson says. “The harvest location is the only place we’re locked solid in terms of if we caught someone poaching. It is the hardest place to patrol, but we’ve got to give it a shot.”
Olson scans a fraction of that shoreline appearing on the radar screen. He’s looking for any small red dots just offshore that might be a boat where divers are illegally harvesting geoducks.
Soon they see a blip. It’s another boat that’s running without any lights. Peters can barely make out a boat with a couple of people on board.
“They’re supposed to have that all-around white light,” Olson says. “It looks like they’re looking for something. What are they looking for?”
“I have no idea,” Peters says.
“Now they’re hoofing it,” Olson says. “Alright, let’s go stop them.”
Olson turns on the overhead police boat flashers. The other boat slows. It is a farmed shellfish crew. They say they’re not harvesting tonight, just checking on some of their beds. Olson checks their registration and tells them they need to have an all-around light on their boat.
“Well, that was really anticlimatic,” he sighs after climbing back aboard the WDFW boat.
Olson and Peters continue patrolling in the darkness. Over the course of two full nights, they will stop a handful of boats on the water. But they find no one who seems to be poaching geoduck or other shellfish.
“I guess you always wonder what you’re missing,” Olson says. “Our biologists have confirmed that these areas are being poached. I just continually try to rack my brain to try to figure out ways to tackle this.”
It is the hardest place to patrol, but we’ve got to give it a shot.
The confidential informants tell Detective Willette that their main buyer is the owner of a Vietnamese-language video store. When poachers bring him cheap clams, he calls friends, family and other customers who come and buy the shellfish in the parking lot of his business.
Incidence rates of foodborne illness have not traditionally been tracked by race, ethnicity or income, but according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, there’s growing evidence that individuals of minority racial and ethnic groups suffer from greater rates of some foodborne illnesses.
It’s a gray February day when the male confidential informant calls the video store owner. Willette stands nearby watching and listening.
“Hey, hi, I got clams today. I got like 70 pounds,” he says. “I can be there in probably 15–20 minutes.”
The clams he’s referring to are not actually poached from Puget Sound, but instead purchased by WDFW officers from a seafood market. They empty the shellfish into buckets and muddy them up to make them seem like they’ve just been plucked from a nearby bay.
Willette drives over to the parking lot and pulls her unmarked vehicle into a spot where she can get a good view of the action.
An undercover officer accompanies the confidential informants. And just as predicted, the video store owner buys them all. Willette calls uniformed officers in to “arrest” the informants and undercover officer and they conduct a search of the business.
The owner admits to arranging sales of illegal shellfish. He has a list of buyers and another poacher who regularly brings him shellfish. And with that, the black market web expands and Willette has a new target.
In the van after the search, Willette says, “He’s been a pretty prolific broker for a long time. He knew it was illegal and he still continues the activity, so I’m guessing he’s going to be charged in superior court for trafficking. He could do jail time. They’re felony crimes.”
“Is it likely that he will?” She throws up her hands. “It depends on the court. It depends on the judge.”
Watch Detective Willette Interview Illegal Shellfish Buyer
Crimes against wildlife — and shellfish in particular — are some of the most difficult cases to take on in court, according to Patrick Hinds, a King County prosecuting attorney.
“A lot of people are just not aware that these are crimes. When you talk about something like an assault, people have a gut reaction that behavior is wrong,” Hinds says. “With shellfish poaching, there isn’t that sort of moral objection to it.”
Hinds was a lead prosecutor on a recent case that began when some Washington residents reported getting sick after eating shellfish from G&R Quality Seafood of Quilcene, Washington.
When you talk about something like an assault, people have a gut reaction that behavior is wrong. With shellfish poaching, there isn’t that sort of moral objection to it.
After an 11-month investigation, WDFW detectives found that business owner Rodney Clark was having his employees steal oysters and clams from publicly- and privately-owned beaches and labeling them with certification tags to make them seem as though they were harvests from G&R shellfish beds. The company trafficked at least $2 million worth of shellfish, but the actual value could be much higher, WDFW officials say.
Clark ultimately pleaded guilty to 17 counts of trafficking in stolen property and one count of reckless endangerment for selling shellfish to the public without a state health certification. He was sentenced to five and a half years in prison.
Hinds says outcomes like that are uncommon. That’s in part because it’s challenging to convince a judge or jury that a serious crime has been committed.
“What we would need to show is that someone knew what they were doing and knew it was wrong,” Hinds said. “How do you distinguish the person who is making an honest mistake from the people who are knowingly going out and stealing this resource?”
Rodney Allan Clark. Credit: WDFW
After investigating the shellfish black market for more than a year and a half, Willette arrested four poachers who regularly sold to businesses in Olympia and Shelton, and discovered several more suspects to follow up on. The suspect nail-salon employees regularly bought hundreds of pounds of clams. Manicurists told undercover officers they served the clams to their families or at church group dinners, in one instance stating, “Whatever you have, I’ll buy.”
Restaurant employees regularly bought large quantities of illegal clams and geoduck as well. Sometimes they divvied the clams up among themselves to take home, but on occasion the shellfish was re-sold to other employees and family members. Twice, the detectives discovered the illegal shellfish was being served to unsuspecting diners.
Willette’s agency has filed felony charges against more than a dozen people. Her investigation continues.
“As long as there’s money to be made and there’s shellfish to be had, it’s never gonna stop,” Willette said. “But I think every person that I educate is a small victory.”
For all the challenges of catching people selling illegal shellfish to customers in Washington, there’s another challenge: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
On any given night, tons of fresh seafood pass through SeaTac. It’s a bottleneck and the majority of the seafood is geoduck packed with gel ice in plastic foam containers.
A geoduck harvested illegally from Puget Sound in the afternoon could be on a plane that evening — enforcement officers have only a few hours to get involved. That’s why Sgt. Olson takes his entire five-officer detachment to conduct periodic airport inspections.
When Olson’s team arrives at SeaTac one evening, hundreds of boxes labeled “Live Seafood” are already waiting. It’s a race against the clock, and all the checking — each box, each certification tag — must be done by hand.
They dig in — opening boxes and cross-checking the information on the tags with online databases to make sure the harvest grounds were indeed open. It quickly becomes clear they won’t be able to check all the boxes before time runs out.
“If you hold up (a shipment), and it misses its flight and gets spoiled, our department is on the hook,” Olson says. “And there had better be a violation. I’m not going to stop something just because I have a hunch. If I can’t confirm information right now, then I’ve got to let it go.”
Olson says a more sophisticated electronic shellfish tracking system would allow his team to scan a barcode to see exactly who harvested the shellfish and from where. A system like that, he says, would make it more difficult to cheat. But many in the farmed shellfish industry have balked at the idea of an electronic system, saying it would be cost-prohibitive for their businesses.
“People are going to take advantage of the holes in the system,” Olson says. “And right now there are holes that you can drive a semi-truck through.”
Soon an officer finds a box that has no certification tag at all. Then there’s another. And another.
“If shellfish is not accompanied by a department of health certification tag, I am required to seize that,” Olson says.
Olson notifies airport officials those boxes won’t be going abroad. After five hours of spot checking the towers of white boxes, Olson realizes they’re out of time.
“This is overwhelming,” Olson says. “It’s an unrealistic task.”
He gathers his team and leaves for the night, taking with him a few boxes of confiscated geoduck. But much more will go unchecked this night — several tons. The hangar pulses with activity as workers load box after box onto planes bound for Asia.
What Happens to Confiscated Shellfish?
Katie Campbell is the EarthFix managing editor for video and a seven-time Emmy® Award-winning producer/photographer at KCTS 9. She covers environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. Katie has earned national awards for her role in the documentaries Undamming the Elwha, COAL and Glacier Caves, and is the 2015 winner of the prestigious Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her story Is Alaska Safe for Sea Stars?
Katie grew up on a flower farm in southern Minnesota. After completing her undergraduate degree in journalism at St. Catherine’s University, she worked as an enterprise reporter at daily newspapers in Minnesota and Florida. She holds a master’s degree in narrative journalism from the University of Oregon. Prior to joining KCTS 9 and EarthFix, Katie was an instructor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
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