Federal agents in Seattle have seized $2.75 million worth of Russian king crab, charging most of it was illegally caught.

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Federal agents in Seattle have seized $2.75 million worth of Russian king crab, most of which was allegedly poached, according to a civil complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The seizure results from a joint U.S. and Russian effort to crack down on the illegal harvest of the valuable crustacean at a time of diminished supplies and record-high prices.

The Russian government assigns quotas intended to prevent overfishing from depleting the king crab within its territorial waters. The civil complaint alleges that a Russian company, Kondor-Transport, had vessels allowed to harvest blue king crab with a processed weight of 13.48 metric tons, more than 31,000 pounds. But the vessels vastly exceeded that authorized harvest amount as the company shipped 112 metric tons — more than 246,000 pounds — of processed crab to the United States, according to the complaint.

“This kind of illegal activity threatens the long-term sustainability of the Russian crab population and creates an inflated market for the crab, hurts domestic fishermen, and undermines conservation efforts,” said Vicki Nomura, special agent in charge at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Northwest Division in Seattle.

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Under the federal Lacey Act, the U.S. government can seize U.S. seafood imports that were caught, sold or transported in violation of a foreign nation’s fishery laws. And the civil complaint, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, seeks forfeiture of the Russian crab from Harbor Seafoods, a New York-based company that took ownership of the product in the United States.

Peter Cardone, president of Harbor Seafoods, said his company has cooperated with federal agents involved in the investigation, and believes the king crab was legally caught. “We feel that once all the evidence is reviewed a positive outcome can be achieved,” he said in a statement released by the company.

The investigation, in addition to NOAA Fisheries, involved U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It resulted from complaints from Alaska king-crab fishermen, who have been frustrated by the competition from illegally caught Russian imports. NOAA agents checked imports in Seattle against Russian records of the legal-catch quotas, according to Bill Giles, the NOAA Fisheries deputy special agent in charge in Seattle.

“The Russians were very quick to respond back to us,” Giles said. “The cooperation we are getting is terrific.” Much of the seized crab that arrived in Seattle was not properly documented, and the boxes were not properly marked, according to the complaint.

The complaint does not allege that Harbor Seafoods had any knowledge of the illegally caught crab, Giles said. But he said court decisions have affirmed the federal government’s right to seize illegally caught seafood even when the purchaser is ignorant of catch violations.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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