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Police probe crab caper

LANGLEY — Langley may have a crab bandit on its hands.

The crabbing season opened just last week, but the Langley Police Department has received an unusually high number of phone calls about stolen crabs and crab pots.

“People think, ‘I’ll just go and get everyone else’s,’” said Langley Police Chief Bob Herzberg. “It’s really quite rude.”

Herzberg said only one formal complaint was filed. The person alleged that he had caught crab and trapped them in the water near the shore and somebody took them.

“But we had several people contacting us about empty crab pots with the bait gone so they think crab was in it,” he said.

Unfortunately, there is not much Langley Police can do, except keep an eye on the water and hope to catch the crabby criminal.

“We have virtually nothing we can do on marine crimes,” Herzberg said. “Karma will catch them.”

It’s against the law to take other people’s catch. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife rules, every shellfish pot, ring net, or star trap left unattended in Washington waters must have its own buoy line and a separate buoy that is permanently and legibly marked with the owner’s name and address.

If a pot is properly marked, it is illegal to pull unattended shellfish gear with a buoy that does not have your name on it.

The thefts seem to be concentrated around the marina area.

“We had our crab pot stolen and so did the people who were staying next door at the Sea Breeze,” said Kathleen Waters-Riehl.

She added that others she met by the water also complained about their missing catch.

“I didn’t get other names, but the others were local from the sounds of the comments on the dock,” she said.

Waters-Riehl said her son discovered some of her pots in a different spot.

“We had three pots out; I had two out and my mom had a brand-new pot out,” Thomas Riehl said. "My pots were not where they had been dropped. Some more were more then an one-eighth of a mile by GPS from where they were originally put in the opposite direction of the running tide. That means they were an one-eighth of a mile south of where they were placed when the tide was going north so it wasn't that they drifted."

“The bait boxes were all opened,” he added. “The bait boxes don’t open unless somebody opens them. They are wired shut.”

One of his and his mother’s pots were stolen.

The missing pots had something in common.

“They are all the square folding pots,” Riehl said.

By asking around, he found that at least nine pots were stolen.

“All of the known stolen pots were square pots with leaded line. All the pots stolen were well marked as to who the proper owners were,” he said. “Those pots run between 50 and 70 bucks a set and up. That’s at least $450.”

Riehl said he is sure that it was not simply a slow fishing day. And he said he found more evidence the next day when he went back to the boat ramp.

“There was a ton of used crab bait dumped out by the boat ramp,” Riehl said. “Three, four different kinds of bait. I am 100-percent sure I saw the bait I cut the night before.”

Riehl also said people who didn’t lose their pots lost what was inside.

“Somebody opened all the pots at least twice,” he said.

In addition to the stolen pots, all of the other pots placed between Langley and Sandy Point were emptied twice but not stolen between 4 p.m. Friday, July 4 and 9 a.m. Saturday, July 5.

Ruth Den Adel, who owns The Sea Breeze bed-and-breakfast on Wharf Street, said her husband Duane returned to empty pots.

“They went out Thursday night for pots they left out Wednesday. Those were stripped,” she said.

Den Adel said they had pots stolen in previous years.

“But nothing like this year,” she said.

Marina-area residents said part of the reason why the brazen crab thief got away so easily with his crimes was the absence of a harbormaster at the Langley Marina.

The city currently doesn’t have a harbormaster for the small boat harbor, but is looking for a “harbor host,” said Kathleen Landel, special assistant to the mayor.

In the meantime, the Langley Public Works Department and Langley Police will work together to take care of the harbor.

And they have their hands full.

Herzberg said crab fishermen have been busy.

“We had a lot of people crabbing,” he said. “You could look down the water and see crab pot float after crab pot float.”

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or mmarxwheatley@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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