Cops crack down on illegal crab trade

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Michael Sueno lifted up the crab pot, hung a slowly rotting chicken leg inside, and prepared to chuck it all in the water.

Dinner was waiting.

Sueno is part of a big family that has tended the waters across the Puget Sound for years. It's now being threatened.

"You just don't want to see it disappear," he said.

Sueno is a recreational crabber who follows state rules for catch limits, size restrictions and which gender he can pull from the water. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife focuses on those without such fishing scruples.

"They know it's wrong and that's why they're at the backdoor of a restaurant," said an undercover operative with the department.

The detective showed newly-released footage of busts and an arrest taken from hidden bags or from vehicles across the street. The video shows buyers who knowingly purchase crab caught outside the quota, and tubs with crabs that are undersized juveniles and females.

The investigators say a restaurant in Bellingham bought crabs delivered in a trash can.

In another video, the detective captured footage of the backside of a nail salon that did what it could to make a buy. For law enforcement, the video can provide critical evidence in many cases where language barriers can be issues.

The payout is only one to two dollars a crab in some cases, but when it's all illegal, the undercover cop says it's nearly all profit. It's a quick way to make cash under the table, and put the illegal catch on your plate.

"The fishermen know where to go to sell the undersized crab," the detective said.

That has led to multiple arrests and charges filed in a handful of cases, some of which are still under investigation. KOMO 4 News has hidden the identity of all involved in an effort to protect any operatives in the field.

Sueno wants them to do their time. "People just want to buy cheaper crab than they're paying at the grocery stores. And it takes away from the whole fishery," he said.