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Washington poised to get tougher with shellfish operators

This story has been updated to correct the dollar amount the state believes to have been poached.

Last summer, we brought you a story about gaps in the system that's supposed to keep Washington shellfish safe to eat. Now state lawmakers appear ready to get tougher with shellfish operators who violate food safety laws.

Early last year, Washington Fish and Wildlife cops shut down a Hood Canal shellfish harvesting operation. They allege G&R Seafood poached $500,ooo worth of oysters and clams from state and private beaches.

But Fish and Wildlife police say even after the business was raided, the company's owner – who denies any wrongdoing - was spotted selling shellfish at fairs and other public gatherings. But Chief Deputy Mike Cenci says there was nothing his officers could do since it was G&R's harvesting license that had been yanked:

"He was legally selling to the public and that was a flaw in our current statute. That here this person's operating in some aspect of the commercial shellfish industry after showing that he couldn't be trusted on the harvesting end."

Now, under legislation that's cleared the Washington House and is headed to the Senate, a shellfish operator whose license is suspended or revoked would be prohibited for any involvement in the commercial shellfish business.

Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife is working jointly with the Department of Health on this legislation. The proposed changes to law would also reiterate that shellfish harvesters must affix a tracking tag to their product at the harvest site.

This is important if a person were to get sick from eating shellfish. Health investigators want to be able to trace the source of the illness. However, the bill does not address the Department of Fish and Wildlife's broader concern: that Washington’s shellfish tagging system is antiquated and depends too much on the honor system.

Washington's Department of Health says modernizing the tagging system is something it hopes to discuss with the shellfish industry in the future.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.