Fishermen claim WDFW targets tribal members in new era of Fish Wars – KIRO 7 news Seattle
It has been more than five years since two members of the Tulalip Tribe were arrested at a marina in Everett; but what led to this moment is still a debate that will be settled in court. What is clear is that no matter how the justice system works, neither side will ever agree.
Hazen Shopbell, one of the tribe members, says it’s the new era of the fish war, a time when tribal fishermen were beaten and beaten for trying to uphold their treaty rights in Puget Sound .
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) says this is a standard investigation, according to which two fishermen violated state laws and engaged in the illegal shellfish trade.
“The narrative developed in Washington state that these guys were somehow corrupt and that they weren’t entitled to the success they were achieving,” says Gabe Galanda, the Shopbell’s lawyer. “It must have been something illegal here. It must have been money laundering. It had to be monopolization. At one point there was an allegation that it was racketeering – which is insane. “
HOW IT BEGUN
Shopbell and her partner Anthony Paul owned the now defunct Puget Sound Seafood Distributors in 2016 when they were arrested. The company basically bought shellfish from other fishermen and grouped them together for wholesale. As Shopbell explained, their goal was to team up with other Tulalip fishermen to improve the prices paid for crab and fish.
“When we were buying crab, we were buying it at the highest price on record,” said Shopbell, as we met in a recent crab season on a wharf alongside other tribal fishermen. “We paid $ 11.12 a pound. We are buying crab at a record price. Ask any fishmonger here. It has never been the same since WDFW closed us down.
According to Shopbell and his lawyer, the public nature of his arrest put too much pressure on the company because their former salespeople were afraid to work with them. Within weeks the company was dead, when months earlier its sudden growth appeared to have raised questions with investigators.
In September 2015, Detective Wendy Willette, the lead investigator in the case involving Shopbell and Paul, filed a report in which she noted: “Why is the PSSD selling crab to other wholesalers while monopolizing the Tulalip crab fishing? Why has PSSD taken all of the business of other established Tulalip buyers? “
In a separate handwritten note, obtained through court records by KIRO 7, she asked if reverse racism was at play, with a quote: “We’re going to sell to our own kind now.”
This ultimately led to them receiving fish reception tickets. Investigators found discrepancies that led them to believe something illegal was happening, while Shopbell said the process they were involved in was common and legal.
According to documents filed in court, WDFW believe Shopbell and Paul were selling seashells without a proper license outside of the usual and customary Tulalip Tribe grounds – they say the pair trafficked illegal clams from the reserve.
The state does not comment on the details of the case, as parts of the case are still pending in court. However, they spoke with KIRO7 about several key factors in the case. Captain Jennifer Maurstad, a member of the law enforcement team at WDFW who was not part of the original investigation, said any sale of seashells outside the reserve requires a state license, which falls under under the jurisdiction of WDFW.
“So if a tribal member is required to have this permit from the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, it is separate from exercising their treaty rights,” said Captain Maurstad. “It’s for safety. This is important for law enforcement officers, both tribal and non-tribal officers.
Crossing in the app occurs from time to time, according to Captain Maurstad. She notes that when an investigation begins, you can’t always predict where it will end up.
“The tribes obviously have their sovereignty, and that’s something we recognize and respect.”
However, the Tulalip Tribe questioned this in two separate letters sent to WDFW during the investigation into this matter. In a letter, the President of the Tulalip Tribe wrote: “These continued actions against the fishermen and buyers of Tulalip fish have increased the perception in our community that the WDFW is disproportionately targeting the tribe members.
Although the case has not been decided by the court system, the state has settled a counter-suit with Shopbell and Paul.
In April 2021, the state agreed to pay Shopbell and Paul $ 50,000 to settle a lawsuit over a bogus request for arrest. The question was whether the WDFW had reason to stop them at the marina in 2016.
The state did not admit the fault; however, it is viewed as a clear victory by the men who filed the claim.
“It feels good,” Shopbell said. “It’s such a small victory, but you talk about six years going through something like that and not knowing if you would do jail time for something you never did, so that was the one of the most difficult times of my life. I have six children and know that I may not be able to support them; it’s frightening.”
The rest of the case will still be decided by the court. At one point, the case appeared to be over when a judge dismissed the case because the hundreds of pounds of clams, the case’s evidence, were destroyed by investigators.
Without it, the defendants argued that they could not defend themselves. While a judge initially sided with them, the question arises as to whether WDFW agents destroyed the evidence in “bad faith”. Essentially, it comes down to whether the clams at the center of the case were destroyed on purpose to undermine the eventual defense.
This means that the five-year saga is not yet over.
The state is still certain that the fishing couple broke the law, while defendants believe the state is targeting individual fishermen rather than entire tribes.
Regardless of what happens in court, the two parties will never agree.
In some ways, Shopbell has evolved. In fact, he is now an elected chief among his tribe. For him, what comes next is part of a fight that began long before him.
“In the end, that’s all we have left,” Shopbell said, gesturing to the Salish Sea behind him. “This is it. You know? This is what our ancestors left us. So it is our job and our duty to intensify and continue this fight, to continue to protect the resource that we have as those who who came before gave us in. It is our responsibility to keep fighting.
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