This is the first article in a series about the laws and regulations administered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) that apply to the sale of fish, shellfish and wildlife in restaurants, grills and taverns in Washington state.

When it comes to acquiring your business’ inventory of fish, shellfish and wildlife, it matters how you go about procuring your fish and shellfish and how you ultimately represent your prepared food to the public. Just ask a rural Eastern Washington tavern owner who went to Canada several times to fish and bring back salmon and halibut to serve at his tavern and restaurant. The owner caught large quantities of salmon and halibut off Canadian shores and brought them into the States. He reported them as being recreationally caught. Ultimately these fish were prepared and sold to patrons at his restaurant. The owner was now acting for commercial purposes without the necessary permits or commercial fish dealer’s license required by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. As a result, his business was charged with felony offenses and eventually convicted of first-degree unlawful fish catch accounting and ordered to pay $10,000 in fines. Other charges against him were dropped as part of a plea deal.

This kind of activity is happening more and more as restaurant owners resort to other opportunities to acquire fresh fish and shellfish without realizing that they may be violating state fish and wildlife laws.

In this case, the restaurant failed to obtain a commercial fish dealer’s/buyer’s license, which is required to import fresh fish for commercial purposes into Washington. Investigators further noted he also failed to disclose to restaurant patrons the species of salmon in the prepared dishes, or whether the salmon was wild or farm-raised.  By law, a business selling fish or shellfish to a consumer is required to state the common name of the fish or shellfish and whether the salmon was farmed or wild caught. These legislative rules ensure that the buyer can make an informed purchasing decision for his or her protection, health and safety.  Charges related to the misbranding of the salmon were filed but dismissed as part of the plea deal.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is the state agency responsible for managing fish, shellfish and wildlife in the lands and waters of the state. This also includes the commercial sale of classified fish and shellfish species.  This authority is based on state regulations – WACs 220-101-0120, 220-320-110, 220-300-370 and WAC 220-300-380.

Warrantless Inspection Authority

WDFW has its own Enforcement Program with WDFW officers and detectives working statewide. As a restaurant owner or operator, you should know that WDFW officers and detectives may inspect without warrant any required paper records of any retail business that sells fish, shellfish or wildlife. This is based under legal authority of RCW 77.15.096. Furthermore, if WDFW officers develop probable cause to believe that a violation of Fish and Wildlife laws and regulations has occurred at a business, the officers may inspect without warrant the premises, containers, refrigerators and freezers for fish, shellfish and wildlife, also under the authority of the same statute.

Ordinarily, WDFW officers will conduct these inspections at reasonable times and in a reasonable manner, for both the officers and business.

Record Retention

If your establishment sells fish or shellfish to the public, you must maintain records of the fish and shellfish at the place where the products were sold, stored or held.  The records must be in English and must include the following information:

  • Name, address, and phone number of the person from whom the fish or shellfish was purchased or received
  • The date of purchase or receipt
  • The state or country of origin if received from interstate or foreign commerce
  • The amount and species of fish or shellfish purchased or received.

You have an obligation to maintain these records for three years from the date that your business received the fish or shellfish. The legal authority to require the retention of these records is RCW 77.15.568. Again, WDFW officers have the legal authority to view inspect these records without a warrant during regular business hours.

What you need to remember:

  1. Always source your seafood – fish and shellfish – from lawful and licensed vendors.
  2. Obtain the correct commercial licenses from WDFW if you want to sell or prepare your own catch.
  3. Manage your seafood records according to the law – keep records!
  4. Correctly label your seafood so the consumers can make informed decisions.

Coming up next time – What you need to know about shellfish regulations if you sell crab, oysters, clams or mussels on your menu.