‘Massive’ Oyster Poaching Case

The Seattle Times is reporting that two men were arrested this morning for “massive poaching” of oysters and clams from Hood Canal.

According to the story, Donald Owens, 43, “along with others, illegally gathered hundreds of thousands of shellfish from tidelands off state parks and private lands.”

“Conservatively, we’re talking about at least 300,000 oysters and 1,000 pounds of hardshell clams,” WDFW wildlife detective Paul Buerger told reporter Craig Welch. “It could be a lot more.”

Twenty state, county and federal law enforcement officials helped serve a warrant and interview suspects and witnesses early this morning. Three hundred pounds of hard-shell clams and 100 pounds of oysters were seized, according to WDFW.

Deputy chief Mike Cenci says the bust amounts to “over a half a million dollars of product,” and is the largest oyster poaching case he’s seen in Washington.

Owens harvested shellfish for G&R Quality Seafood, whose owner, Rodney Clark, 45, was arrested after officers searching his home/business on the warrant found guns, which, as a felon, he’s not allowed to have, the Times reports.

“Indications are that he had knowledge of unlawful activities,” Cenci alleges.

A press release issued by his agency late this afternoon says “WDFW detectives believe the seafood company employed harvesters to steal” the oysters and clams.

It’s unclear how long the alleged poaching has been going on, but Cenci says the case began with tips from citizens and the Department of Health. That led to “lots” of surveillance during the 13-month investigation.

He says it’s probable that shellfish were removed from DNR, State Parks and WDFW-managed beaches as well as some private tideflats in Quilcene and Dabob bays and north Hood Canal.

The Times reports that the Quilcene based company “resells its catch at Western Washington farmer’s markets from Lake Forest Park to Issaquah and to wholesalers as far away as Brooklyn, New York.”

Cenci says that it appears that none of the shellfish came from unsanitary beaches, but in the legal shellfish trade, a certificate of health is attached to clams and oysters as they travel through the market ensuring that if someone gets sick from eating the meat, the source can be traced.

“If you’re falsifying tags — i.e. stealing from one beach and saying it came from another — you convolute and compromise the safety net,” he says.

The seized shellfish did not bear required certification from the state Department of Health and will be destroyed as required by state law.

As it stands the case will bury his detectives in forensic accounting, i.e. trying to determine what was harvested where, that beach’s capability to produce shellfish and what was marketed.

“That’s going to require intense work,” Cenci says, and will stretch the agency’s “paper thin” enforcement staff even thinner.

Officers also seized two barges, a 16-foot fiberglass vessel, five firearms and a van

Information gathered during the investigation will be turned over to the Jefferson County Prosecutor’s Office.

UPDATE MARCH 19, 2010: THE PENINSULA DAILY NEWS, KPLU RADIO AND KING 5 TV DID STORIES ON THIS CASE. THE TIMES ALSO RAN A FULLER VERSION OF THEIR INITIAL STORY, DETAILING MORE ABOUT THE CASE BEGAN AND HOW INVESTIGATORS SPENT LONG, COLD NIGHTS IN THE BUSHES WATCHING THE ALLEGED POACHERS WITH NIGHT VISION INSTRUMENTS. THE TIMES ALSO REPORTS THE SUSPECTS ARE EXPECTED TO BE ARRAIGNED TODAY.

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