OLYMPIA - A Pierce County man has been arrested as the suspected leader of a geoduck clam and crab poaching ring that over the past 18 months distributed what could be up to $3 million worth of illegally harvested shellfish to markets throughout the United States and overseas.
Douglas John Martin Tobin, 49, of Fife, and four other south Puget Sound area residents were arrested early this morning by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) detectives and officers.
The arrests come at the end of a 18-month investigation by WDFW, the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Pierce County Sheriff's Office, during which enforcement officers gathered evidence of the extent of the illegal shellfish harvesting and selling operation. Additional arrests and charges are expected with the assistance of the Fife Police Department and the U.S. Coast Guard.
"This is certainly one of the largest organized poaching cases that our agency has investigated in recent memory," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings. "While criminal offenses involving the state's natural resources might not be as high profile as other crimes, these are serious charges and simply cannot go unpunished," Koenings said.
"These arrests will help protect a resource which provides millions of dollars every year to the state to fund access to recreation and habitat restoration along shorelines and rivers," said Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland.
"This was a joint effort, and we appreciate the work of WDFW and Pierce County. We are always coordinating with WDFW, the Department of Health, counties and tribal fisheries, to closely monitor state lands and severely punish poachers."
Tobin was booked on suspicion of a number of felony charges, including leading organized crime, trafficking in stolen property, first-degree theft and unlawful commercial fishing in closed waters. Additional arrests are expected over the next few days, said WDFW enforcement chief Bruce Bjork.
Confiscated from a Fife shellfish processing plant this morning in conjunction with the arrests were approximately 1,500 pounds of geoduck, harvested last night , with an estimated market value of about $20,000. A large amount of Dungeness crab, also harvested last night, was seized at the Fife plant as well. Tobin's 42-foot commercial fishing boat, Typhoon, and a 17-foot skiff, six vehicles and three rifles were also confiscated in conjunction with this morning's arrests.
Bjork said agency detectives and officers, working on an anonymous tip, began an undercover investigation of Tobin's illicit shellfish harvesting in 2000. The harvests, which always occurred at night, were conducted at several locations throughout southern Puget Sound.
Bjork said the poachers harvested the deepwater clams and crab under the cover of darkness, transferring the shellfish in crates and plastic garbage cans to a Fife processing plant, where they were packed and trucked to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. From there, the clams were airfreighted throughout the United States and Asia.
Geoduck is a highly prized delicacy, commanding up to $100 per pound in some markets.
"This is shellfish that belongs to the citizens of Washington state," Koenings said. "I commend the agency's enforcement staff for their determination in pursuing this investigation, often at personal risk and in dangerous conditions."