SEATTLE – When a waiter at your favorite restaurant hands you the “fresh sheet” and you order dinner, do you know if you’re getting what you’re ordering?
According to state Fish and Wildlife officials, as many as one item in four could be mislabeled or outright fabricated.
Succulent scallops? Might actually be circles of meat cut from the wings of small rays called skates.
Wild Columbia chinook? Could be Atlantic farm-raised salmon disguised with a nice glaze.
Top-grade geoduck? Not likely, considering the Chinese will pay 10 times what Americans will for the giant clam.
Shark fin soup? OK, that might be real. But it’s also illegal.
“Some people think that if it’s a big company, or a real respectable restaurant … there’s no way they can be doing anything illegal,” said Erik Olson, a law enforcement officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Sometimes, those businesses are being duped by the people they’re buying from.”
Olson, 37, is a Fish and Wildlife cop on the beat in Seattle. While he spends part of his time on boats in Puget Sound or nearby lakes, he also enforces the state’s tracking and labeling laws on fishermen, wholesalers, shippers, restaurants and stores.
State statutes require that fish and shellfish be tracked from the time they are pulled commercially from Washington waters or shorelines until they reach the restaurant or store counter. The paperwork must say when and where it was caught, and by whom, and when it was shipped and sold, by whom and to whom.
If the paperwork is done properly, Olson can trace fish from the docks in Seattle to the shipping bays at SeaTac Airport or the small markets in the city’s International District or the meat counters at major retailers like Costco.
The rules can be confusing, Olson concedes, particularly with the mix of ethnic groups involved in the Pacific Northwest. One day last week, as he made his rounds, Olson was trying to track oysters that had been harvested by a west Puget Sound tribe, delivered by a Caucasian buyer to a Vietnamese distributor, and resold to a Chinese wholesaler that supplies restaurants in the International District.
An excuse he hears quite a bit: “I didn’t know that was a rule.” His standard response: “Did you even look?”
When people complain the rules are too complicated, Olson hands them a business card with his cell phone and email address. “I will answer any question you have,” he said. “But if you can’t follow the rules and you won’t call me, you better get out of this business.”
Last Wednesday he issued a citation to the Seattle Super Market, which was selling Atlantic farm-raised salmon as wild Alaskan king salmon and other fish that didn’t clearly list the species or where it was from. The owner had been warned several times before that such information had to be clear.
Paperwork was also lacking for fish at a Costco south of downtown. It was probably at the warehouse, said managers, who added they’d never been informed of such laws. Olson had them call up the key statute on the Internet, to read and forward to headquarters. Talk with corporate and work out a way to get a copy of the paperwork in the stores, he said, promising to check back in a few weeks.
A 1998 Whitworth College graduate with a degree in political science, Olson is the department’s officer of the year, and has been with the agency seven years, six of them in Seattle. With a shaved-bald head, crisp uniform and fully stocked police belt, he can be an imposing figure, but is more likely to let first-time offenders off with a warning.
In a break from inspections Wednesday evening, he rounded up several people illegally fishing from the Spokane Street bridge into the Duwamish River below. He gave most a warning but issued a citation to Arthur Ferrera, who had hooked a salmon and stowed it in his car. But even Ferrera seemed relieved that the ticket was only $109, and the two parted on good terms.
“I want you out here fishing but I want you to follow the rules. Otherwise there won’t be any salmon left for anyone,” Olson said.
He didn’t study marine biology at Whitworth, but over the years has developed a wealth of knowledge about Northwest fish and shellfish in the marketplace.
Top-grade geoduck in a market case raises a red flag. The large clam native to Washington and British Columbia is much prized in Asia, where the top grade brings as much as $100 a pound. So if he sees geoduck in the Seattle markets that’s labeled as No. 1, going for a price Americans would agree to pay, he knows something’s fishy and demands to see the paperwork.
Some stores and restaurants try to pass off less expensive farm-raised Atlantic salmon as wild Northwest king. The color is too light and the fat lines too even on farm-raised fish, but grill it and put a glaze on it and most people can’t tell, he said.
A study this year by the University of Washington-Tacoma found that 38 percent of fish ordered in restaurants was not what it was billed when genetic tests were conducted.
Olson admits that he can be tough questioning waiters at a restaurant who describe the day’s special, particularly if they’re describing a fish that isn’t in season. “My wife sometimes tells me to just shut up and eat it,” he said.
To enforce the fishery rules, wildlife officers are cross-deputized with county sheriff’s offices, nearby states and federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They also enforce other state laws, write traffic tickets and serve warrants. Because of that, Olson’s jurisdiction extends 150 miles off the Washington coast and 50 miles into Oregon.
This isn’t a case of state bureaucracy run amok, he adds. The rules protect the public and the finite resource. Some areas are closed for health reasons, and not enforcing those rules means people could get sick or even die.
Commercial fishing is also a billion-dollar business, and some of the state’s seafood is extremely valuable. “It’s supply and demand. If you don’t regulate and manage the resource, it won’t be around long,” he said.
Some people try to beat the system of controlled harvests by fishing or clamming on closed areas at night or poaching in areas leased to other fishers. They may try to “launder” their illegal catch by selling and reselling it while it sits in cold storage. That’s where the paperwork that should list each transaction from the water to the retailer can trip them up.
Sometimes they’ll try to forge tickets to claim the fish or shellfish was harvested by a licensed fisher at an open area. The Washington State Patrol’s handwriting analysts have caught some dealers who got hit with additional perjury charges.
Last spring, Fish and Wildlife officials arrested two fish wholesalers in Quilcene for what they believe is more than $1 million in illegally harvested shellfish. The charges are pending, but the case could involve racketeering and ties to organized crime.
“It’s all about following the money. It’s always about that,” Olson said.