OLYMPIA - A joint surveillance effort between the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada enforcement officers has resulted in the arrests of six Canadian crab fishers allegedly fishing in U.S. waters north of Bellingham.
WDFW enforcement officers arrested four Canadian crab fishers and seized two boats, while DFO Canada enforcement officers chased a third crab-fishing boat to a port in British Columbia where two more Canadian citizens were arrested.
The fishers face a number of misdemeanor charges, including unlicensed commercial fishing in U.S. waters, plus violations of crab size and sex possession rules, said Sgt. John Erickson of WDFW's north Puget Sound detachment.
Erickson said a number of Canadian crab boats have been under video surveillance by DFO Canada enforcement officers for the past three weeks, and this morning officers were finally able to catch the illegal crabbing activity as it was occurring.
"The international boundary is plainly marked with monuments both in the water and on the shore," Erickson said. "These markers line up quite well, and the boats ranged from being about 100 feet to several hundred feet over the line."
DFO Canada enforcement officers also have video footage of the Canadian crabbers fishing in U.S. waters, Erickson said.
Penalties for illegal commercial crab fishing in U.S. waters range from loss of fishing privileges, to monetary fines, boat and gear seizures, and jail time.
"These are serious violations and the penalties are strong," Erickson said. "Crab and other shellfish are extremely valuable to both recreational and commercial harvesters, and illegal fishing not only takes crab away from lawful crabbers, but it reduces our management effectiveness as well."
Erickson said enforcing commercial crabbing activity along the border is difficult because of the difference in the two nations' fishing seasons.
"The Canadian crab season opens in late July, while the Washington state season doesn't open until Oct. 16," he said. "Canadians will start the season fishing in the shallower water on their side of the boundary, and they'll keep getting closer to the international boundary, which is in deeper water and where most of the crab can be found."
Inevitably, some Canadian crabbers will set their gear directly on the international boundary, and once that occurs a few will begin to set their pots in U.S. waters, Erickson said.
"It's not unusual for us to see up to 1,000 Canadian crab pots on the U.S. side of the line," he said. "We've been seeing this occur with regularity now for at least three of the last four years."
Erickson said a key to the surveillance operation was the strong working relationship the agency's enforcement officers have with their Canadian counterparts.
"These arrests would not have occurred without DFO Canada's cooperation and assistance," he said.