A man and woman drive a blue pickup to the back of a Chinese restaurant.
A man approaches them with a scale as the woman pulls a bag heavy with clams from the back of the truck.
The transaction is quick and casual, as though they’ve done this before. And they have. But this time, a hidden camera has captured their transaction.
“The whole thing happens in less than four minutes,” says Detective Wendy Willette as she watches the tape.
Willette is an investigator with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. She heads an operation to unravel a shellfish black market that has sprung up in South Puget Sound.
Valued at $270 million, Washington's farmed shellfish industry is tops in the nation.
Shellfish are also an easily exploited commodity. Anyone with a bucket and shovel can harvest them on beaches when the tide is out. Fish and wildlife officials estimate Washington’s fish and shellfish are poached and trafficked more than any other natural resources.
“They’re gold on the beach,” says Lt. Paul Golden who oversees the WDFW’s Statewide Investigative Unit.
Sea to market
Clams, mussels and oysters absorb what’s in the water, including toxins and pollutants. That can cause illness or even death in people who eat them, which is why the industry developed a certification program to track shellfish. Commercial shellfish is tracked from beach to table, making it one of the most traceable foods. When shellfish are collected from the beach, harvesters must fill out a tag that stays with the shellfish as it travels to the consumer.
The siphon of a clam operates much like a snorkel -- it’s the lifeline -- water and food particles are pumped in and later expelled through the outgoing siphon. Credit: Katie Campbell KCTS9/EarthFix
"If you're in a restaurant and you order oysters, you should be able to ask your wait staff to see the tag that came with that shellfish when it was delivered to the restaurant," says Bill Dewey, a shellfish industry representative who has led efforts to set nationwide rules for tracking shellfish.
If someone gets sick from eating tainted shellfish, the certificate system is supposed help health inspectors trace it back to the exact section of beach where it was harvested. That area is immediately closed and any other shellfish that were harvested there are recalled.
But this system, based on trust, is also vulnerable to abuse. It's impossible to tell legal and illegal clams apart, which makes cheating as easy as creating a fake tag.
"If people want to sell illegal shellfish, you can do it. You can game the system," Dewey says.
The blue truck
Detective Willette’s hidden camera captured some of the first concrete evidence for her investigation, but it didn’t capture the pickup’s license plate. So, the identities of the woman and man inside the vehicle remained a mystery.
While searching through the list of previous violators, Willette locates a husband-and-wife team that looks similar to her mysterious shellfish-trafficking couple.
They also happen to own a blue Chevy pickup. Officers had caught the couple just a few months before harvesting clams in the middle of the night from a bay near an open sewer outfall.
Her suspects are Caucasian. They're known methamphetamine users and the male suspect had been implicated on several occasions for trafficking stolen timber.
Willette could arrest the couple. But she doesn't want the investigation to end there. She suspects there are more poachers and more buyers involved in this black market.
"Our goal is to net as many people as possible so that when we do decide to move forward, we're able to get the biggest bang for our buck," Willette said.
From poachers to informants
Willette ultimately brought in the the South Puget Sound shellfish-trafficking couple and gave them a choice: Risk felony convictions, hefty fines and jail time -- or help her investigation.
They opted to become confidential informants.
"It was fast, easy money. And I like digging clams. I really enjoyed it," the female informant told KCTS9 and EarthFix. The couple agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity.
Her partner said, "Every time we'd sell to the main person we sold to, we'd make like $300 to $400, and it'd only take a tide to dig it."
The informants said they poached and sold shellfish illegally for years before they were caught. They said they sold to Asian-owned businesses – restaurants, nail salons, a video store.
"It seemed so minor. It seemed like you weren't really doing anything wrong," the male informant said.
Willette needed hard evidence that the people at these businesses regularly bought illegal shellfish. The couple agreed to help expose their buyers in exchange for reduced charges.
The informants tell Willette their main buyer is the owner of a Vietnamese-language video store. When poachers bring him cheap clams, he calls friends, family and other customers who come and buy the shellfish in the parking lot of his business.
Incidence rates of foodborne illness have not traditionally been tracked by race, ethnicity or income, but according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, there's growing evidence that individuals of minority racial and ethnic groups suffer from greater rates of some foodborne illnesses.
It’s a gray February day when the male confidential informant calls the video store owner. Willette stands nearby watching and listening.
There's more in our series about poachers, traffickers, and the fight to stop their crimes against nature.
"Hey, hi, I got clams today. I got like 70 pounds," the informant says. "I can be there in probably 15 to 20 minutes."
The clams he's referring to are not actually poached from Puget Sound, but instead purchased by WDFW officers from a seafood market. They empty the shellfish into buckets and muddy them up to make them seem like they've just been plucked from a nearby bay.
Willette drives over to the parking lot and pulls her unmarked vehicle into a spot where she can get a good view of the action.
An undercover officer accompanies the confidential informants. As predicted, the video store owner buys them all. Willette calls uniformed officers in to "arrest" the informants and undercover officer and they conduct a search of the business.
The owner admits to arranging sales of illegal shellfish. He has a list of buyers and another poacher who regularly brings him shellfish. And with that, the black market web expands, and Willette has a new target.
In the van after the search, Willette says, "He's been a pretty prolific broker for a long time. He knew it was illegal and he still continues the activity, so I'm guessing he's going to be charged in superior court for trafficking. He could do jail time. They're felony crimes."
"Is it likely that he will?" She throws up her hands. "It depends on the court. It depends on the judge."
Prosecuting wildlife crimes
Crimes against wildlife – and shellfish in particular – are some of the most difficult cases take on in court, says Patrick Hinds, a King County prosecuting attorney.
"A lot of people are just not aware that these are crimes. When you talk about something like an assault, people have a gut reaction that behavior is wrong," Hinds says. "With shellfish poaching, there isn't that sort of moral objection to it."
Hinds was a lead prosecutor on a recent case that began when some Washington residents reported getting sick after eating shellfish from G&R Quality Seafood of Quilcene, Washington.
The results of one operation
After an 11-month investigation, WDFW detectives found that business owner Rodney Clark was having his employees steal oysters and clams from publicly- and privately-owned beaches and labeling them with certification tags to make them seem as though they were harvests from G&R shellfish beds. The company trafficked at least $2 million worth of shellfish, but the actual value could be much higher, WDFW officials say.
Clark ultimately pleaded guilty to 17 counts of trafficking in stolen property and one count of reckless endangerment for selling shellfish to the public without a state health certification. He was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.
Hinds says outcomes like that are uncommon. That's in part because it's challenging to convince a judge or jury that a serious crime has been committed.
"What we would need to show is that someone knew what they were doing and knew it was wrong," Hinds said. "How do you distinguish the person who is making an honest mistake from the people who are knowingly going out and stealing this resource?"
After investigating the shellfish black market for more than a year and a half, Willette arrested four poachers who regularly sold to businesses in Olympia and Shelton, and discovered several more suspects to pursue. The suspect nail-salon employees regularly bought hundreds of pounds of clams. Manicurists told undercover officers they served the clams to their families or at church group dinners. One woman said, "Whatever you have, I'll buy."
Restaurant employees regularly bought large quantities of illegal clams and geoduck as well. Sometimes they divvied up the clams among themselves to take home. On occasion the shellfish was re-sold to other employees and family members. Twice, the detectives discovered the illegal shellfish was being served to unsuspecting diners.
Willette's agency has filed felony charges against more than a dozen people. Her investigation continues.
"As long as there's money to be made and there's shellfish to be had, it's never gonna stop," Willette says.
"But I think every person that I educate is a small victory."