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!
In Shell Games, Welch follows several Fish and Wildlife Service law-enforcement agents, as well as state wildlife agents, who monitor the Puget Sound for illegal harvesting activity. They sleuth and cultivate informants that stealthily infiltrate the worst criminal geoduck trafficker rings. Some informants are even double agents, pilfering geoducks even as they inform on others. The law-enforcement agents take their time building huge cases against the biggest offenders, one of whom steals an estimated 125,000 pounds worth of geoducks and off-limit king crabs.
As the detectives seek access to the shady black-market world of geoduck traffickers, the threads they pick up lead them to a multi-million dollar international industry bigger and more convoluted than any of them had ever suspected. Along the way, Welch weaves in other tales of wildlife traffickers and their stories. Readers meet an Asian butterfly hoarder, surreptitious bear-hunters seeking illegal gallbladders, and a shark-nabbing pastor.
In addition to telling the geoduck story in a whodunit mystery framework, Welch does a wonderful job of crafting living, breathing characters that waltz across the page. He dutifully records sketches of what key figures look like, their dress and eating habitats, hair styles and quirky sayings. All of these details speak to important parts of the characters’ personalities and the result is that the reader becomes ensconced in sting operations and an analysis of personal agendas.
What truly makes this book a great story is that Welch researched 25,000 pages of records and documents (some of them court records unsealed by a judge at his request) and he conducted long interviews with key characters in order to reconstruct all the events and scenes — sometimes he narrates them in a minute-by-minute fashion. He tells the story from alternating points of view, and it’s so detailed that you get the feeling he shadowed the main characters for large parts of their careers. Because of Welch’s diligent and exhaustive reporting, the reader becomes a fly on the wall and many of the scenes roll across the mind in cinematic fashion.
If you are interested in tales of voracious greed and wildlife plunder, Shell Games is definitely for you.