Chinese mafia rakes in millions from 'Puget Sound gold'

Chinese mafia rakes in millions from 'Puget Sound gold'
An underwater gold mine exists off the shores of Puget Sound.

It centers on a bizarre-looking clam which brings a top dollar of $168 a pound.

With millions at stake, sources tell the Problem Solvers there's no shortage of shady divers, criminal middle men and organized crime, including the Chinese mafia.

On a recent, serene day on Puget Sound, agents with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife approach a group of boats just off Blake Island.

Officer Erik Olson peers through binoculars, "just trying to find that monitor boat, I think it's right in the middle," he says as he steers his boat closer. The Problem Solvers are accompanying the Fish & Wildlife agents as they do a "drive-by" to check:

• Who's on the water ...

• Who's diving ...

• And who's harvesting geoduck.

The bizarre, giant clam that can bring in fast money.

At a Tacoma warehouse, workers separate the day's harvest of lower grade geoduck. The real money is in a pallet of nearby cold pack boxes. Inside are top grade geoducks, called either "number ones" or "A's". They'll retail at $168 a pound in China.

For the lucky, smart, and in some cases criminal geoduck harvesters - geoducks mean millions.

"It's very similar to what you would see with drug cartels," says Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Captain Ed Volz, "except these are clams ... big ugly clams worth a lot of money."

In Asia - particularly China - geoduck is a prized delicacy. And here, both law enforcement and a convicted poacher and geoduck insider tell me the Chinese mafia controls much of the market.

"But you cannot move a second, an inch either way," says the convicted poacher, "without contact from a mafia."

And perhaps the largest percentage of marketable geoduck in the world - is right here in Puget Sound.

"We know that in fact organized crime money is being funneled to companies in the continental United States," says Capt. Volz.

For just $2,000 - anyone - from China to Canada to Western Washington - can buy the right to bid on Washington's geoduck. Last year geoduck auctions brought in $48 million to state coffers, but earned much more than that on the retail market.

One of the toughest things about enforcement out here is that this is a hidden harvest, virtually everything happens under the water, hidden from view.

The convicted poacher agreed to talk with the Problem Solvers about geoduck smuggling if we protect his identity.

He says unscrupulous divers often throw away everything but top dollar geoduck. And he adds profit-minded boat operators hide geoduck in order to harvest more than their state-allotted quota. He says there are myriad ways to hide part of a harvest, "stash them in your dive bag, to secret compartments on the vessel, to hanging them underneath the boat."

State agents have busted numerous operations - finding those secret compartments or over-quota sales. But still, divers and boat operators risk it because criminal wholesalers pay for and insist on top-grade geoduck.

Our poacher says the money controls the trade, "I've seen a little over $3 million stacked on a table."

And they risk it because they know that with all of Puget Sound for wildlife agents to watch the odds are with the smugglers.

Capt. Volz, reluctantly, agrees. "It's a Band-aid at best... what we're able to do with the number of officers we have."

But this isn't just a story about smuggling and organized crime. The Problem Solvers also discovered that black market seafood may be winding up on your plate, and there's no way to track where it comes from or if it's even safe to eat.

We are still working on that part of the investigation and will have that part of the story on Tuesday.