Fishermen claim WDFW targeting tribal members in new age of Fish Wars

It’s been more than five years since two Tulalip Tribe members were taken into custody at a marina in Everett; but what led up to that moment is still a debate that’ll be settled in court. What’s clear is that regardless of how the court system plays out, neither side will ever see eye-to-eye.

Hazen Shopbell, one of the tribal members, says it’s the new age of the Fish Wars, an era when tribal fishermen were beaten and battered for attempting to fulfill their treaty rights in Puget Sound.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) says what played out is a standard investigation, that two fishermen violated state laws and trafficked in illegal shellfish trade.

“The narrative developed within the state of Washington that somehow these guys were corrupt and that they were not entitled to the success they were realizing,” explains Gabe Galanda, Shopbell’s attorney. “It had to be something illegal here. It had to be money laundering. It had to be monopolization. At some point there was an allegation that this was racketeering -- which is insane.”

HOW IT STARTED

Shopbell and his partner Anthony Paul owned the now-defunct Puget Sound Seafood Distributors business back in 2016 when they were arrested. The company essentially bought up shellfish from other fishermen and bundled them together for wholesale. As Shopbell explained it, their goal was to team up with other Tulalip fishermen to improve the prices being paid for crab and fish.

“When we were buying crab we were buying at the highest price ever,” said Shopbell, as we met up during a recent crab season on a dock alongside other tribal fishermen. “We paid 11, 12 bucks a pound. We’re buying crab for a record price. Ask any fishmen, here. It’s never been the same since WDFW shut us down.”

According to Shopbell and his attorney, the public nature of his arrest brought too much heat to the business, as their former sellers were scared to work with them. Within a few weeks the business was dead, when months earlier its sudden growth appears to have raised questions with investigators.

In September 2015 Detective Wendy Willette, the lead investigator on the case involving Shopbell and Paul, filed a report where she noted, “Why is PSSD selling crab to other wholesalers while monopolizing the Tulalip crab fishery? Why has PSSD taken all business from other established Tulalip buyers?”

In a separate handwritten note, obtained through court records by KIRO 7, she questioned whether reverse racism was at play, along with a quote: “We’re gonna sell to our own kind now.”

That eventually led them to fish-receiving tickets. Investigators found discrepancies that led them to believe something illegal was happening, while Shopbell said the process that they took part in was common and legal.

THE CASE

According to documents filed in court, WDFW believes that Shopbell and Paul were selling shellfish without proper licensing outside of usual and accustomed grounds for the Tulalip Tribe -- they say that the pair trafficked in illegal clams off the reservation.

The state isn’t commenting on particulars of the case, because parts of the case are still playing out in court. However, they spoke with KIRO7 about several key factors in the case. Capt. Jennifer Maurstad, a member of the enforcement team at WDFW that wasn’t part of the original investigation, said that any sales of shellfish off the reservation require a state license, which is under the jurisdiction of WDFW.

“So, if a tribal member is required to have that license from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, that is separate from them exercising their treaty rights,” said Capt. Maurstad. “It’s for safety. It’s important for enforcement officers -- both tribal and nontribal officers.”

Crossover in enforcement happens from time to time, according to Capt. Maurstad. She notes that when an investigation begins, you can’t always predict where it will land.

“The tribes obviously have their sovereignty, and that’s something that we recognize and respect.”

However, the Tulalip Tribe has questioned that in two separate letters sent to WDFW during the investigation of this case. In one letter, the Tulalip Tribe chairwoman writes, “these continued actions against Tulalip fishers and fish buyers have increased our community’s perceptions that WDFW is disproportionately targeting tribal members.”

A SETTLEMENT

While the case has not been determined by the court system, the state has settled a countersuit with Shopbell and Paul.

In April 2021, the state agreed to pay Shopbell and Paul $50,000 to settle a lawsuit over a false arrest claim. At issue was whether the WDFW had cause to arrest them on the marina in 2016.

The state didn’t admit fault; however, it’s viewed as a clear win by the men who filed the claim.

“It feels good,” said Shopbell. “It’s such a small win, but you’re talking six years going through something like that and not knowing if you’d do prison time over something you never did, so, it was one of the hardest times of my life. I have six kids and to know I might not be able to provide for them; that’s scary.”

WHAT’S NEXT

The rest of the case will still be determined in court. At one point the case seemed to be over when a judge threw the case out because the hundreds of pounds of clams, the evidence for the case, were destroyed by the investigators.

Without it, the defendants argued they couldn’t put on a defense. While a judge initially sided with them, there’s a question over whether the WDFW officers destroyed the evidence in “bad faith.” Essentially, it’s a question over whether the clams at the center of the case were destroyed on purpose to harm the eventual defense.

This means the five-year saga isn’t over yet.

The state is still certain that the pair of fishermen broke the law, while the defendants believe the state is targeting individual fishermen instead of entire tribes.

Regardless of what happens in court, the two sides will never see eye-to-eye.

In some ways, Shopbell has moved on. In fact, he’s now an elected leader within his tribe. For him, what comes next is part of a fight that began long before him.

“At the end of the day this is all we have left,” said Shopbell, pointing to the Salish Sea behind him. “This is it. You know? This is what our ancestors left us. So it’s our job and our duty to step up and keep this fight going, keep protecting the resource that we have that the ones before us gave us. It’s our responsibility to fight on.”