Poaching of the Puget

Clams and oysters are considered delicacies, but soaring prices have created an incentive for poachers to steal shellfish, sometimes from polluted beaches. Earthfix reports on the story from the state of Washington, where fish and wildlife detectives are trying to take down this international black market.

TRANSCRIPT

I need -- I need a uniform!

I need a uniform!

This is a bust.

But it's not what you think.

Right there, right there, right there.

Stop, stop!

These officers are breaking up a black market...

Guys, Fish and Wildlife police.

...of illegally harvested shellfish... clams, oysters, mussels.

Poachers are stealing them from Washington's Puget Sound...

The clams are stolen.

...and selling them for thousands of dollars, says Washington Fish and Wildlife deputy chief Mike Cenci.

Fish and Wildlife police officers are the only thing standing between bad guys that poach bivalve shellfish from areas that they shouldn't... and human health and safety.

Hey, guys.

State Fish and Wildlife.

How's it going?

Officers are on patrol day and night...

Which one of you gentlemen is in charge here?

...searching for poachers, staking out businesses, and collecting evidence.

They say cheating the system is much easier than policing it.

Shellfish are a high-risk food because they're filter-feeders.

They suck in whatever is in the water -- toxins, harmful pathogens, or even pollutants.

Thousands of people get sick from tainted shellfish each year in the United States.

Some even die.

The difference between poached seafood and legal seafood isn't something you can see.

For clues, Washington Fish and Wildlife sergeant Erik Olson has to check the paperwork.

So do you have any paperwork for this?

I should have had that just over...

Do you keep the containers?

No, sir.

You don't keep the box or anything that it comes in?

The paperwork is meant to ensure... that shellfish can be traced back to the beach from where it was harvested.

It's a low-tech process based on the honor system.

If a customer wants to know where these oysters came from, how do you know?

Bill Dewey works for Taylor Shellfish Farms.

He's also chair of the committee that develops the nationwide rules for tracking shellfish.

So when we do a harvest on the beach, the harvesters generate a handwritten tag with all of the information about the date, the bed that it's harvested, you know, all of our company information -- our certification number and so on.

These tags accompany the shellfish from the beach to the processing plant, all the way to the marketplace -- supposedly guaranteeing these shellfish are safe to eat.

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.

But a system based on trust is also vulnerable to abuse.

You know, if people want to sell illegal shellfish, you can do it.

You can game -- game the system.

Cheating the system is as easy as creating a fake tag.

There's got to be somebody out there writing tickets once in a while to keep everybody in check and make sure you're doing it right.

You don't have one ounce of labeling anywhere throughout this place, okay?

If you cannot prove where it came from and that it's safe for human consumption, I can't let you sell it.

With thousands of markets and restaurants in the Seattle area alone, Olson says if he had more time or more officers, he could file a felony-level shellfish violation pretty much every day.

Wildlife 5-3 to all marked units, we are in place.

What's even more alarming is that Fish and Wildlife investigations are finding the shellfish black market is operating through businesses that have little to do with seafood -- places like nail salons, gas stations, or even a video store.

All right, we're recording.

Frankly, if someone would have told me that an Asian video store would be a place that shellfish would be trafficked, I wouldn't have believed them.

And we know now that any business, any storefront could be potentially involved in the seafood trade.

Of all the shellfish that sell on the black market, one clam is above the rest -- the geoduck.

Most Americans have never heard of, much less eaten, a geoduck.

So why is there such a thriving black market for their meat?

Before we answer that, let's get one thing out of the way.

It may be spelled 'geo-duck,' but it's pronounced 'goey-duck.'

Geoducks are the largest burrowing clam in the world.

Predominantly found in Puget Sound, they can live up to 160 years.

That's one of the longest life-spans in the entire animal kingdom.

And adult geoduck weighs around one to three pounds.

And in Asia, their meat is a prized delicacy.

About 90% of the geoducks harvested in the U.S. are sent across the Pacific.

That's about $70 million worth a year.

In China, geoduck was once reserved for elite banquets.

But China's growing middle class has developed a taste for the delicacy and the disposable income to afford it.

This rising demand has sent geoduck retail prices to as high as $150 per pound.

And soaring prices create a big incentive for poachers.

Here's how it works.

Harvesting wild geoduck is only allowed in certain areas of Puget Sound.

The state auctions off each area, but there's still a limit on how much can be dug up within each area.

141.

The man who decides that limit is Bob Sizemore.

135.

He's Washington State's lead geoduck research scientist.

We need to be very careful with the harvest rates.

Basically, you cut down a forest, it takes a very long time to come back.

Each time an area is harvested, it takes about 40 years for the geoduck population to recover.

That's why the harvest rate is 2.7%. Anything higher would not be sustainable.

Out in Puget Sound, Sizemore and his team count geoducks before and after an area is harvested.

But with just five divers, they're only able to survey about 3% of the areas where geoducks are found.

We still see signs of illegal harvest.

We see signs of poaching.

And we don't find any recovery.

[ Plane engine roars ]

On any given night, tons of fresh seafood pass through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

It's a bottleneck where Fish and Wildlife officers can check the cargo as it's moving through.

The overwhelming majority of that product is, in fact, geoduck.

It's just thousands of pounds.

If shellfish is not accompanied by a Department of Health certification tag, then I am required to seize that.

Officers must look at each tag to find out whether the shellfish came from an open area and were harvested by a licensed harvester.

That is not salmon.

There's no electronic system or any quick way to determine if the information on the tags is accurate.

It looks like some kind of rockfish fillet or...

Everything must be hand-checked.

Officers confiscate seafood that's not properly tagged, but they're only able to check a fraction of the boxes.

And there's no telling how much illegal shellfish slips through.

If the incentive is there, and trust me, it is there -- we're talking big money -- then people are gonna take advantage of the holes in the system.

Right now, we have holes you could drive a semitruck through.