Investigation targets Shore crab industry

Federal, Md. and Va. authorities pursue allegations of selling undersized crabs

September 21, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

Federal wildlife officials are investigating whether three Crisfield crab processors, watermen and others in the Maryland and Virginia seafood industry have been involved in the widespread sale of undersized soft-shell crabs - possibly marketing the young blue crabs on Internet sites.

Agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, backed by Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, raided the three crab houses Sept. 7, authorities confirmed yesterday.

The investigation is continuing, and no charges have been filed in the case, said Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the wildlife agency's regional office in Maine.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the legal size limit for soft crabs harvested and sold in Maryland. Commercial fishing regulations require that crabs be 3 1/2 inches in length.
The Sun regrets the error.

According to search warrants filed in U.S. District in Baltimore, agents worked undercover for more than three years, tape-recording conversations and phone calls, and posing as restaurant owners from West Virginia who dickered over prices for "pee-wee" crabs, sought for their small size for use as appetizers.

The investigators repeatedly returned to buy crabs from Eastern Shore processors who routinely marketed and sold live and frozen crabs that were under Maryland's 4-inch minimum, according to the court documents filed by Bryce Findley, the fish and wildlife agent who led the investigation.

Federal prosecutors handling the case could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Company officials at two of the processing plants, Metompkin Bay Oyster Co. and N. R. Dryden & Co., did not return phone calls. The third company, John R. Handy & Co. Inc., referred calls to Baltimore attorney Ron Taylor, who said he could not discuss the investigation.

Weaver said the investigators are trying to determine whether portions of the federal Lacey Act - which prohibits illegally taking plants or wildlife and crossing state lines - were violated.

Crisfield, a town of about 2,700 that bills itself as the "Seafood Capital of the World," and the seafood industry across the Eastern Shore were abuzz after the raids, in which the agents seized business records and other documents. One longtime downtown businessman said he saw a dozen black government vehicles racing toward the Handy company on 7th Street.

"I guess it's a pretty big deal with the federal government involved," said Joe Brooks, whose family owns a Cambridge-based processing house, J. M. Clayton Co. "All we know so far is rumors. I don't know what the consequences could be for the industry."

According to court documents, Maryland National Resources Police asked for help from federal authorities in March 2003, when they reported that live soft-shell blue crabs were being "transported in interstate commerce via commercial vessels from Tangier Island, Va., to seafood dealers in Crisfield."

In Maryland, soft crabs - crabs caught and then sold after shedding their shells - must be at least 4 inches long. In contrast, Virginia allows the harvesting of crabs that are 3 1/2 inches long.

The court papers filed with requests for search warrants at the three waterfront crab processing companies say agents discussed prices and availability of "cocktail crabs" or "pee-wees" with employees of all three companies.

The investigators chronicled their crab buys in detail, recounting conversations with employees and describing their purchases.

Taking stock of an Aug. 11, 2005, purchase, for instance, investigators said they found 11 percent of their order was smaller than Maryland's legal size limit. Each box was shipped with a red adhesive label identifying the crabs as "DELIGHTS," according to court documents.

One Web site, documents said, boasted of pee-wee crabs that were "up to 3 1/2 " inches long.

Larry Simns, who heads the Maryland Watermens Association, said he worried that the investigation could have a negative effect on an industry that has struggled for decades. Many processors have closed in recent years as seafood harvests have declined.

"Any time you're talking federal charges, it could cost a lot for legal help," said Simms. "They're some of our biggest processors, and we certainly don't want to lose any more."

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