Craig Welch's "Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature's Bounty"

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By Juliet Eilperin
Sunday, June 27, 2010

SHELL GAMES

Rogues, Smugglers, and

The Hunt for Nature's Bounty

By Craig Welch

Morrow. 274 pp. $25.99

Craig Welch's "Shell Games" has the most unlikely of central characters: the massive geoduck clam, a tasty creature that resides in the waters of Puget Sound and resembles the raciest part of the male anatomy. Pronounced "gooey-duck," the valuable shellfish and the humans who cannot resist plundering it make for a compelling tale that is at once ridiculous and tragic. Writing in the vein of a detective novelist, Welch recounts how a group of dedicated state and federal wildlife agents devoted years to cracking down on the lucrative trade in geoducks (scientific name: Panope generosa) in the Pacific Northwest.

One of the book's charms lies in the vibrant array of crooks and saints who have spent years immersed in the geoduck underworld. An unlikely duo from the state of Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the tough-talking Ed Volz and the chain-smoking but soft-hearted Kevin Harrington, stake out poaching vessels at night and dodge bullets from irate fishermen. Nichols P. DeCourville, a Las Vegas seafood broker, takes pride in boasting about his Mafia connections to one of his suppliers, only to fall apart when confronted by federal agents in his home. But none of them compares with Native American artist, geoduck diver and convicted felon Doug Tobin, a larger-than-life federal informant whose activities shape Welch's tale.

Welch writes that Tobin, a skilled sculptor and raconteur with long black and silver ringlets, "could have passed for Louis the XIV, if the Sun King had favored flannel shirts open to his ribs and had worn a whale-tooth necklace." He spends much of his time building and tearing down alliances, whether with the white geoduck fisherman who first introduced him to the trade, his Canadian business partners or the federal and state agents who depend on him for information on Pacific Northwest smugglers. In large part the book is driven by one question -- at the end of the day, whose side is Tobin on? -- and the answer helps explain how complicated it is to penetrate a smuggling operation that starts in the waters off western Washington and extends to Asia and beyond. The human penchant for betrayal is what allows the good guys to do their job, but it means they're constantly questioning which snitch they can trust.

On a broader level, "Shell Games" examines the burgeoning traffic in wildlife, which ranks as the world's third-largest black market, behind drugs and guns. Scaled-back trade barriers and the rise of both the Internet and express shipping have fueled the illicit trade of plants and animals worldwide. Everything that has made worldwide trade easier has also connected wildlife traffickers with potential buyers, expanding the customer base for either outright poaching or in the case of geoducks, over-exploitation of a vulnerable species. The economic growth of first Japan and then China has intensified the demand for seafood delicacies such as the geoduck, which -- served raw, in a Mongolian hot pot, stewed or saut?ed -- can be worth as much as heroin in some places.

While the book could have benefited from closer scrutiny of the consumer culture in Asia, one of its strengths is its depiction of Puget Sound. Welch gives his reader a sense of both the region's amazing natural bounty and of the quirky people who seek geoducks out. Whether it's clam kings such as Ivar Haglund -- whose television commercials for his seafood restaurant show cavemen dancing around an eight-foot clam with the slogan: "Ivar's: Dancing around clams since 1938" -- or the Evergreen State College students who embrace the geoduck as their mascot with the chant "Go, geoducks, go/Through the mud and sand, let's go," the Pacific Northwest makes full use of its rich natural heritage. Welch describes with precision how fishermen haul geoducks from the sea floor, bring them on deck and heave them "on top of one another until the clams pile up like glistening stacks of hundred-dollar bills."

At times, Welch's love of detail threatens to overwhelm the reader. Is it essential to know the color of the slicker an unnamed detective is wearing in a bar as he listens in on a new informant, or to delve into an old caviar-trafficking case or the Makah tribe's whale hunt in the late 1990s? No, and these digressions undermine the narrative's otherwise rapid clip. The book could have used a bit of streamlining toward the end, when it gets bogged down in the mechanics of the wildlife detectives' final bust.

But these are minor criticisms. Welch has clearly done his homework, which has allowed him to write an engrossing tale of both human excesses and the attempts of a few brave souls' to curb them. Everyone, not just the denizens of Puget Sound, has a stake in this battle's outcome.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's national environmental reporter. She is writing a book on sharks.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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