When too much of a resource is taken from area bays and beaches — a common occurrence when it comes to clams and crabs — it can put the species at risk of declining or disappearing.

Preventing that is an ongoing battle in the Puget Sound region and requires having eyes on the water.

That's where state Department of Fish & Wildlife officers such as Ralph Downes and Taylor Kimball come in.

"We're professional watchers," Downes said.

They also refer to themselves as "fish cops."

As they traverse the bays and inlets of the area, they watch activity on boats and on shorelines.

When they notice something not quite right — such as crabbers not counting or sorting their catch — Downes said they will initiate an inspection that could lead to an investigation and possible criminal charges.

"It always starts with us," Kimball said of major poaching busts.

Poaching, or taking fish or wildlife illegally, is a major focus of Fish & Wildlife's northwest Washington marine patrol unit that includes Downes and Kimball. But it's not their only responsibility.

The six-member marine patrol unit for Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island counties is also tasked with ensuring endangered Southern Resident orcas are given the space they need and monitoring boats for invasive species.

That work keeps them busy year-round.

AN ONGOING ISSUE

While the job of marine patrol officer is varied, poaching is often the primary focus.

Poaching includes taking too many, harvesting outside of a legal season, using illegal gear, and taking marine wildlife that are too small or otherwise off limits, such as female crab.

During the past year and a half, officers including Downes and Kimball have issued warnings, written tickets and recommended charges for dozens of poaching incidents in Skagit County alone, according to public records obtained from Fish & Wildlife.

Some involved the harvest of Manila and butter clams at March Point, red rock crab and horse clams at Samish Island, lingcod and copper rockfish near Cypress Island, scallops near Allan Island, Dolly Varden trout and coho salmon near Kiket Island, Dungeness crab from Skagit Bay and seaweed from an Anacortes park.

In some cases, groups were collecting and sometimes hiding their catch in buckets, backpacks and garbage bags, according to the records.

A couple was caught in one case taking 379 manila clams from a March Point beach, according to Fish & Wildlife's incident report. They were harvesting in a closed area and taking well over the limit of 80 clams per person.

In another incident, a man was seen loading garbage cans full of crabs into the back of a truck beneath the Duane Berentson Memorial Bridge while the season was closed, according to agency records.

This spring, a group was caught taking several garbage bags of seaweed from a beach in Anacortes, exceeding the limit of 10 pounds per person per day, records show. That limit serves to ensure the resource, which is habitat and food for many other species including crab and salmon, isn't depleted, Downes said.

Downes and Kimball said those types of local incidents may not seem significant, but they can add up and impact the marine resources.

"All of our rules are in place for a good reason, and violating those rules does have impact," Downes said. "If one person took too many fish or clams or crab, it probably wouldn't be that detrimental to a population. But when multiple people do it, it amounts to thousands of fish, hundreds of pounds of crab or clams."

Kimball said large operations that can impact the resources immediately also do happen.

A case uncovered by a marine patrol team in southwest Washington recently resulted in criminal convictions for five individuals involved in sea cucumber poaching, according to a news release from the Clallam County Prosecutor's Office.

That operation moved an estimated 250,000 pounds of poached sea cucumber from the region to Asia.

THE RULES

The state regulates the harvest of marine species primarily for conservation, Downes said.

Size and quantity limits are intended to ensure enough of the species remains in the water in order to reproduce.

In the case of Dungeness crabs, Downes said the 6.25-inch minimum shell width guarantees the crabs can reproduce at least once before being harvested. Female crabs are also protected because of their importance in carrying young.

Kimball said he equates the work done by Fish & Wildlife to the way forest managers leave behind trees after logging to ensure the growth of new trees.

"It's all about conservation, about sustaining the populations," he said. "Preserve, protect, perpetuate: That's part of the agency's mission statement."

Downes and Kimball said many people they catch poaching are unaware of the rules.

"You have some who are plain old just not aware, but part of that tells me they really don't care because they didn't go look," Kimball said.

He and Downes said there is a difference between knowingly breaking the law and negligently breaking the law, but consulting the state's fishing rules is an easy way to avoid negligence.

"They might not truly know they are breaking the rules, but they really should have," Downes said.

The state's "Sport Fishing Rules" guide, which numbers about 140 pages, outlines the rules for various types of fisheries in different areas. The website also lists updates or emergency changes to the rules.

Downes and Kimball said while it can seem large and complicated, the document is easy to navigate once it's opened.

It's broken down by marine area, as well as creek, river and lake, so that once fishermen know where they're headed, they only need to look at a few pages to know the rules.

The rules specific to fishing for salmon in Skagit Bay, for example, are covered in two pages.

CRAB SEASON

With commercial Dungeness crab fisheries in the region open as of Oct. 1, following the closure of the recreational season, the northwest Washington marine patrol unit has been focused largely on crabbing.

Fish & Wildlife Sgt. Russ Mullins, who oversees the marine patrol unit, said the team is investigating commercial and recreational poaching cases.

"Officer Kelly Denny had an outstanding case that occurred in Skagit County on Similk Bay just inside of Deception Pass," Mullins said. "It was a recreational guy that was poaching closed season and we ended up seizing his boat as a result."

He said the marine patrol unit also recently seized a boat for investigation of commercial crab poaching.

Downes said fishermen have also been caught this fall using crab pots linked together and keeping the buoys hidden beneath the water using a timed release contraption. Those practices are illegal. 

An added challenge for the marine patrol team during crabbing season is the international border.

On Oct. 16, Downes and Kimball were involved with a border operation during which about 200 Canadian crab pots were pulled from U.S. waters. 

Downes said the encroachment of Canadian crabbers into U.S. waters is a regular occurrence.

If U.S. law enforcement approaches the crabbers, Downes and Kimball said Canadian crabbers will often retreat and leave their pots behind because they aren't traceable in U.S. databases.

"They'll make thousands of dollars doing this ... It's (losing their pots) just the cost of doing business," Kimball said.

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'Fish cops' keep eyes on the water

Watercraft stay the appropriate distance from a surfacing orca off San Juan Island in September 2011.

AN EMPHASIS ON ORCAS

In addition to enforcing harvest rules for crabs and other marine species, the marine patrol unit is also responsible for protecting some of the largest wildlife in the region: the endangered Southern Resident orca population that is down to 74 whales.

Mullins said with the state-wide emphasis on protecting and recovering the whales, Fish & Wildlife has about doubled orca-related patrols to about 100 days per year.

"It feels like it's all about the whales right now," officer Clint Lucci said while chatting Aug. 30 with Downes, Kimball and visiting officer Brandon Chamberlin of Vancouver while out on the water near Friday Harbor.

Chamberlin is one of several officers who have visited from other areas of the state this year to help increase orca-related patrols.

State law requires boaters to stay 200 yards from the whales, avoid getting in their path and put their engines in neutral if a whale unexpectedly surfaces within 200 yards.

Once Fish & Wildlife officers locate orcas during a patrol, they flash the blue lights on their patrol boats to alert other boaters of the whales' presence.

"When the blue lights are on, everyone knows the police are here and it gets them thinking about why, and changing their behavior when they realize ... the whales must be here," Downes said.

The hope is that the officers' presence also discourages poaching activity that can harm the region's smaller marine species.

For now, the battle continues.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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