Ocean Violators Feel the Strong Arm of the Law


Officer Hwa Kim
As part of an investigation, the WDFW seized these geoducks in King County on September 19, 2009.

Between 1999 and 2002, 30 collaborators illegally harvested nearly a third of the Dungeness crab population in south Puget Sound. Detective Bill Jarmon and I worked the case. By analyzing invoices, shipping records, and airbills, we learned that the group had stolen at least 85,000 pounds of crab from the Nisqually area and more than 200,000 pounds of geoduck, a large endemic bivalve clam in high demand in the Asian marketplace. Detective Jarmon photographed the vessel belonging to the main suspect, a Squaxin tribal member, as it returned to a small private dock with a load of crab poached that night. Using those surveillance photos and information from informants, we eventually made four arrests and served search warrants for 10 businesses buying the stolen crab and geoduck. And together with the state attorney general’s office, we sued the main buyer, a Canadian company. The company has since been barred from the seafood trade in Washington State. Resource managers estimate that it will take decades for south Puget Sound Dungeness crab numbers to recover.

Only guns and drugs generate more worldwide black market revenue than the illegal trade of fish and wildlife. Illegal fish and wildlife trafficking is an international enterprise that returns enormous profits to poachers, smugglers, brokers, and illegal markets, while at the same time confounding resource managers with inaccurate harvest reports. Everyone has heard of the big-game poachers that market illegal elephant ivory, furs, velvet deer antlers, and bear gallbladders, but there are just as many poachers and smugglers stealing fish and shellfish to sell on the black market.

Throughout my 34-year career with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, I have investigated the most egregious violations of our natural resource laws. My detectives in the Special Investigative Unit and I have tracked out-of-state organized crime organizations that hire hit men to remove competitors. We have seen money laundering, corporate theft, and front companies that hide millions of dollars obtained from the illegal sale of poached fish and wildlife, including geoduck and Dungeness crab.

Over time, we have also seen how poaching can destroy habitat, devastate populations, and greatly limit potential revenue for citizens. Bringing law enforcement officers and resource managers together can save species. The role of law enforcement is often left out of conversations about protecting our natural resources. But it can have a significant effect on conservation outcomes, and our work often helps biologists and resource managers do a better job. Through criminal investigations, law enforcement officers expose underreported fish and shellfish harvests, deter illegal harvests, and help resource managers ensure the sustainability of natural resources. Scientists and resource managers, for their part, provide valuable expertise when law enforcement officers are working with prosecutors to build cases.

In Washington, officers and detectives enforce all natural resource laws across the state. This covers everything from brush pickers and cedar thefts to all commercial and recreational fisheries and wildlife protection, dangerous wildlife, boating safety, public safety issues, and marijuana crops grown on state-owned lands. On top of this, Fish and Wildlife officers work closely with local police in remote areas, where they are often the first responders in cases involving domestic violence, methamphetamine labs, and suicides.

While there are good natural resource laws on the books, we need more officers to enforce these laws. Currently, there are just 18 marine officers and 5 detectives for all of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, the lower Columbia River, and the Washington coast. This is not enough to effectively manage the fish, shellfish, and wildlife resources of the state.

A typical enforcement investigation begins with a report, usually from the public or a disgruntled competitor, of the illegal harvest of fish, shellfish, or wildlife. The officer then confirms the report through hours of surveillance. Oftentimes the poaching occurs in the middle of the night, somewhere in Puget Sound, and we have to elude lookouts on vessels, who use night vision or radar to detect approaching enforcement officers. If the poached resources are on the market, officers must document the harvest, transportation, delivery, payment, and, finally, the sale. When the sale is out of state or country, we join forces with federal agents. Often these investigations last for two years or more.

It is not uncommon for harvests to be underreported. Criminal investigations have helped amend harvest statistics that were found to be inaccurate. I have personally led or been involved in three separate Fish and Wildlife conspiracy investigations, in which we have applied criminal and civil RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charges in cases involving up to 30 individuals or businesses.

In these and other investigations, the findings of Fish and Wildlife officers have been critical to the work of local resource managers. For example, in 2003, our detectives discovered that illegal commercial harvesters had compromised 10 Puget Sound geoduck recruitment study areas. Biologists had actively monitored these areas for up to 14 years, observing the species’ repopulation rates following commercial harvests. Following the investigation, years of recruitment studies had to be terminated because biologists could not determine when the illegal harvesting had occurred.

In 1999, detectives learned from industry representatives, harvesters, managers, and informants that individual divers’ quotas for the geoduck fishery had been flagrantly exceeded through overharvest and underreporting. This violation resulted in the overharvest of the state’s projected 2.9 percent total allowable catch, or TAC. After they were presented with the actual harvest numbers, following the criminal investigation, biologists determined that the resource was in jeopardy and decided to limit future harvest quotas for all harvesters. Detectives have also identified extensive, undocumented wastage of geoduck and crab previously not factored into harvest reports.

You might not picture a badge and a search warrant when you think about conservation solutions, but enforcement is an essential component of any effective resource management strategy.