Shell Games, by Craig Welch, is hands-down one of the most interesting wildlife stories I’ve read in decades. (Admittedly, the subtitle, Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty, snookered me from the outset.) Welch is an environmental writer at the Seattle Times, and the book grew from stories he first reported for his newspaper about wildlife trafficking in the Puget Sound. The more he looked into it, the more convoluted the tales became. The result is Shell Games, a story of the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest, how it went horribly wrong, and the crazy, greedy characters that sped it on the path to illicit international markets.
The shellfish in question is a long-lived clam called a geoduck. They are the antithesis of the big, fuzzy charismatic megafauna that so many wildlife stories depend upon to generate interest. Geoducks are large burrowing clams that live immersed in mud on the ocean floor for decades, with only a fleshy siphon thrust up through the sediment. Through their long-necked siphon, they feed, defecate and expel gametes. They live up to a century and a half, all within their ocean floor burrow. So, why on earth should we care about a long-lived, sedentary clam that weighs a couple of pounds (whoppers weigh up to 15) and garners $6 to $12 per pound of its flesh?
How about, because they are dug up illegally by the thousands and smuggled out of the country to Asian markets — and because competition for them is so fierce that fishermen literally blow up each other’s boats, smugglers inform on their biggest competitors, and the industry garners millions and millions of black-market dollars. Criminal rings form to harvest these shellfish at night, with divers sucking air from secret lines drilled through the hull of ships to maintain clandestine secrecy. Some bandits even use re-breathers so that their illegal harvests can’t be detected by tell-tale bubbles at the surface. All this so that tasty geoduck can be served night after night in seafood restaurants, at home and abroad. Now that is pretty interesting! Continue reading