PORT ORCHARD – A Seattle shellfish wholesaler was arraigned here today on charges that he bought and sold Manila clams illegally harvested two years ago on Kitsap County beaches.
Michael Brendan Mahaffey, 34, owner of The Best Fish Company LLC, today pleaded not guilty in Kitsap County Superior Court to three felony counts of unlawful trafficking in shellfish, one felony count of unlawful use of fish buying and dealing licenses, and one count of unlawful possession and sale of shellfish not grown in approved areas, a gross misdemeanor.
The charges were based on evidence gathered by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and tribal enforcement officers.
A trial date has been set for Nov. 13.
Each of the felony counts carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The gross misdemeanor count carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
In a separate action also based on the WDFW investigation, the Washington Department of Health (DOH) notified Mahaffey on July 24 that it intends to suspend his shellfish operator's license for 45 months and impose a fine of $2,250. Mahaffey has since requested a hearing to contest the suspension and fine, and his shellfish license remains valid pending the outcome of those proceedings.
The WDFW investigation centered on a series of illegal clam digs conducted in July and August of 1998 on beaches around Dyes Inlet in Kitsap County. DOH has prohibited shellfish harvesting on those beaches, primarily due to periodic discharge from the Bremerton sewage collection system.
On Aug. 27, 1998, enforcement officers from the Suquamish Tribal Police, Point No Point Fisheries and WDFW interrupted a sale of illegally harvested clams to a fish buyer allegedly working for Mahaffey.
Two men involved in the illegal digs were later charged in Suquamish Tribal Court and plead guilty to illegally harvesting clams. One man was sentenced to 19 days in jail, the other to 30 days and each was fined $1,915.
"The positive side is that WDFW, in cooperation with the Suquamish Tribal Police, were able to stop this operation after only two months," Chief Bjork said. "Once alerted to the situation, everyone went into action."
Jennifer Tebaldi, director of food safety and shellfish programs at DOH, said the case illustrates the importance of enforcing state shellfish laws.
"Our job is to protect the health of the public," Tebaldi said. "Cases like this emphasize the importance of working together to ensure that contaminated shellfish doesn't reach the marketplace."