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Saturday, April 21, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.

Importer forfeits $2.1 million in crab-poaching case

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times environment reporter

A New York seafood importer has agreed to forfeit $2.1 million after federal prosecutors allege it bought 112 tons of king crab that had been illegally harvested from Russian waters.

The crab was imported into the U.S. through Seattle using false or misleading documents.

"International trade involving illegal seafood products is a widespread problem that threatens the integrity of our food supply and undermines efforts to protect valuable natural resources," U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan said in a statement. "The financial loss to the importer in this case should put all seafood importers on notice that they need to ensure that the products they import are legally harvested and imported."

The case started in December 2010, when New York-based Harbor Seafood attempted to import three containers of frozen, cooked crab through the Port of Seattle. Federal agents with the National Marine Fisheries Service seized the shipment when it became clear the boxes were mislabeled.

The Russian Federation has a strict quota system dictating who gets to fish for king crab in its waters, and U.S. importers are required to document where the crab came from to ensure it wasn't poached.

But only one of the three Russian fishing boats Harbor Seafood claimed caught the crab was legally allowed to harvest any at all. One of those boats, in fact, already had been decommissioned, and shipments from the boat that did have a legal quota amounted to 25 times more crab than it was allowed to catch.

"There is definitely a large black market for crab products," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Franze-Nakamura. "In general, illegal and unregulated fishing is a huge, widespread problem."

Federal wildlife agents interviewed officials with Harbor Seafood who insisted it was merely a paperwork snafu. But two weeks later Harbor Seafood received another five containers of crab using paperwork that, again, suggested it had been caught illegally. That shipment, too, was seized.

All the crab from both shipments was sold for $2.5 million. On Thursday, Harbor Seafood, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to forfeit the bulk of the money. It will retain $300,000 and take steps to improve its compliance with international law.

"From a law-enforcement perspective, in bringing cases like this, we want to make sure poachers and those who do business with them aren't profiting from their illegal activity," Franze-Nakamura said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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