Putting the pinch on illegal crabbers
As more people take up crabbing in Puget Sound, those paid to police the harvest are noting an uptick in illegal activity. From recreational fishermen who don't get licenses or ignore quotas and size limits to large-scale poaching by commercial or tribal fishermen, there is no shortage of crustacean scofflaws.
Seattle Times environment reporter
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife: wdfw.wa.gov
Rules for gathering Dungeness in Puget Sound• Get a license.
• Fish Thursday through Monday only in open areas of the Sound.
• Use red and white crab buoys marked with your name and address.
• Use appropriate crab traps, with a fiber cord that will degrade and release crab if pot gets lost.
• Keep only males at least 6 ¼ inches wide across the shell. Release female, soft-shell and undersized crab immediately.
• Immediately record each catch, even before putting the trap back in the water.
• Use only two crab pots per person.
• Take only five crab per person per day.
Officer Chris Moszeter squatted on the deck of his 28-foot patrol boat and measured the shells of a bucketful of crab.
The fishermen idling alongside his Boston whaler watched uneasily as the state wildlife cop pushed aside several shellfish — ones so small the crabbers should have known they couldn't keep them.
"This one's not even close," Moszeter said, holding up a flailing Dungeness an inch shorter than legal size.
As more people have taken up crabbing in Puget Sound, those paid to police the harvest are noting an uptick in illegal activity.
From recreational fishermen who don't get licenses or ignore quotas and size limits to large-scale poaching by commercial or tribal fishermen, there is no shortage of crustacean scofflaws.
Just among recreational crabbers, "it's not uncommon to find violations on 50 to 80 percent of the boats we stop," said marine officer Erik Olson with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Authorities are seeing larger incidents, too. Last fall, Nisqually tribal police stopped a boat carrying three nontribal members and several hundred pounds of Dungeness crab they had pulled illegally from a closed portion of the Nisqually delta. The trio allegedly had been forging documents and selling hundreds of crab at below-market prices to commercial buyers.
In another case, a state officer seized 1,200 pounds of undocumented crab from 11 rubber 55-gallon cans in a pickup at a Bellingham marina.
Last month, two Canadians were caught using unmarked, underwater ground lines to secretly snare thousands of Dungeness from off-limits areas in U.S. waters.
"Right now, collectively, across all sectors, compliance is not where it needs to be," said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of law enforcement for Fish and Wildlife.
Nothing suggests these illegal harvests have caused shellfish declines or other ecological issues. But a review last year by the state Auditor's Office declared widespread illegal crabbing one of the greatest threats to future crab populations.
"Right now, crab populations seem very robust," said Rich Childers, a state shellfish biologist with Fish and Wildlife. "We're seeing good, strong abundance in most regions. But we're seeing a lot more violations than we want."
On a sunny patrol last week in northern Puget Sound, Olson and Moszeter scanned the horizon through binoculars while another officer piloted the whaler. They were searching for crab boats. It didn't take long.
West of Whidbey Island they pulled alongside a dinghy carrying the Jacobson family, of Edmonds. Olson announced his presence with a cheery grin, congratulated all three kids for wearing life vests and rewarded each with a coupon for free ice cream. Then he told the adults that they were doing spot checks.
Moszeter and Sgt. Rich Phillips reviewed fishing licenses, measured and counted the family's catch of crab, and checked to see that each shellfish had been properly documented. The inspection took 10 minutes. The Jacobsons had done everything right.
"That was awesome — 100 percent compliance," Olson said after shoving off. "That was good to see."
In this area, at least lately, it's also unusual.
Each year, Puget Sound's 8 million to 9 million harvestable crab are divvied among three groups. Half goes to the region's tribes. The other half gets split between sport fishermen and commercial crabbers.
The commercial fishermen work in fall. But through the second half of summer — and usually again in winter — recreational fishermen by the thousands paddle or motor their boats just offshore, dropping cages called "pots" stuffed with fish, chicken or other bait. When crab clink in and get trapped, crabbers haul them up.
These fishermen must follow a handful of rules. Keep only five crab a day. Immediately put back all females, because they may still reproduce. Keep only males with shells at least 6.25 inches wide. That way each male has had a chance to mate once or twice.
Tie every crab pot to a red and white buoy marked with the owner's name and address. That way it's easy to see who is fishing, and where. (Cops regularly field complaints from people who say someone has emptied or stolen a crab pot.) Record the catch on a special card as soon as the crab pot has been emptied. That data gets mailed to the state, which uses it to help determine how many crab get caught. The recreational season is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Biologists along the Pacific Coast have used similar tactics for years because they keep crab populations high. But rules work only if they're followed. They're often not.
One afternoon earlier this year, officers pulled more than 50 pots illegally gathering crab on a day when fishing was closed. On a single patrol late last month in Holmes Harbor off Whidbey Island, Olson spied problems on a dozen separate boats.
"Every single person we contacted was violating the law," Olson said. "It was a little crazy."
A few weeks ago, Olson watched from afar as two men in South Seattle fished from a pier. They filled a bag at their feet with crab — and occasionally ran to the bushes to fill another. Confronting the men later, Olson retrieved the hidden bag and found 15 illegal crab, mostly undersized and female.
"One of the guys said, 'Whoa, what is that? Where'd that come from?' " Olson recalled.
It's impossible to know how much crab gets taken illegally. Individually, many violations seem minor — a few undersized crab here, a female crab there. But the frequency of illegal harvesting makes authorities uneasy.
"From a statistical perspective, I can't really say how bad it is," Deputy Chief Cenci said. "Really, what officers are collecting is a contact-to-violation ratio. To some degree, the numbers are a reflection of who they stop and their success in predicting which boats are likely violators. But you get concerned when you contact 10 boats and five have a problem."
Plus, not all problems are small.
Earlier this year, the Puyallup Tribe quickly removed the head of its shellfish program after Fish and Wildlife officers found he had sold thousands of crab to commercial buyers without reporting them against the tribe's quota.
"Our council takes this very seriously," tribal spokesman John Weymer said. "It's a cherished resource not only for sustaining their lifestyle, but also for making a living. It's important that it's guarded."
A month before the summer season, officers caught another man setting pots near Orcas Island and disguising their presence with mooring buoys. They found 38 crab on his boat — 33 more than allowed. Many were female or undersized. He told cops he assumed the season was open, even though no other crabbers were out.
He claimed he'd used mooring buoys because the store was out of the red and white ones. Officers called the store. It had 215 crab buoys for sale.
With 178,000 recreational licenses just for Puget Sound, small violations by a broad swath of the public can be as damaging as a few big poaching operations.
"When we see lots of violations — especially people harvesting female and undersized crab — that's a problem," said Childers, the biologist. "If that gets to a certain level, that could definitely have resource conservation concerns."
During last week's patrol, the officers spotted two men offloading a dozen crab in two pails. Asked if they knew the limit, one man correctly said five crab each.
"That's just it," Olson said. "There are six in each of these buckets."
A half-hour later the cops stopped a man fishing alone. He'd reached his daily limit, but left two additional Dungeness — one female — drying on his boat floor. He said the crustaceans had gotten stuck in his crab pot. But Olson had watched from afar as the man made no effort to free them.
"That's just not believable, sir," Olson said, after easily releasing the crab. "I saw you through binoculars. You were just sitting there fishing."
On their next stop, the officers found several undersized crab, and a man with no license fishing for salmon.
In each case, the officers wrote citations — sometimes several. The penalties, typically, were $80 to $109 apiece.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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