BOOK: Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty (2009) by Craig Welch

I actually finished reading this terrific non-fiction book several weeks ago, but I’m way behind on reviews at the moment and am only now getting to this one in the list.  Which is dumb because I could’ve summed this book up in a single sentence: Shell Games is a  fascinating and thoroughly bizarre thrill-ride that’ll make you go “Huh?” and then “Hmmm. . .” and finally “WTF?!” (in a good way).  And I’m not just saying that because I know the author personally (although, disclosure: I do).

One of the best parts about reading this book, I have to say, was that when people asked me what it was about and I answered, “geoduck poachers,” I got the greatest looks.  Looks that said, “Whozzit what now?”  Looks that said, “What’s a ‘gooeyduck’ and why would I want to poach one?”  People were invariably curious at first, and then totally dumbstruck once filled in. Which makes sense, I suppose, because this is one weird, wild story.

The bulk of this tale is about an elaborate, surprisingly enormous ring of geoduck poachers that’s been operating in the Pacific Northwest for years (author Craig Welch is an environmental reporter at the Seattle Times).  Believe it or not, the poaching of these giant clams involves all the same sorts of things you’d expect to find in a drug smuggling operation: undercover officers, intricately planned stings, death threats, and millions of dollars in black market revenue.  Giant clams!  Selling overseas for $200+ apiece!  Get out — that’s loco like bananas (as my niece would say)!

Welch mostly focuses on a specific operation by the Fish and Wildlife department, describing the methods and motivations employed by all the various parties:  the officers in charge, their snitch/informant (a former poacher himself, perfectly happy to turn on his “colleagues”), and the poachers themselves, who are not, I repeat: NOT!, messing around here.  Tick one off and the next thing you know, there’ll be a price tag on your phallic-looking-clam-smuggling head.

Along the way, Welch also tells us about a variety of other wildlife thefts, everything from moss stolen from the forests of the Northwest (moss!  stolen!  for money!  boggles!  the!  mind!) to women smuggling small monkeys onto airplanes in their hair.  A long passage about a butterfly thief from Japan (selling his finds on Ebay, of all places) kept me up way past my bedtime, as the undercover cop in charge of bringing him down tried repeatedly to endear himself to the man, only to find himself constantly pissing him off instead.  As it turns out, butterfly smugglers also have extremely short fuses — somewhat surprising given the delicate nature of their work.  Also: they can really hold a grudge.

Every chapter in this book is as riveting as the last, but aside from the stories themselves, what makes Shell Games a true pleasure to read is the writing. Welch is a gifted author, with an astonishing talent for describing a scene — not what I expected, to be honest, from a newspaper reporter.  And, of course, the stories themselves read like white-knuckling fiction:  You’re going to blow that guy up because he’s. . . encroaching on your black market profits on. . . GEODUCKS?  Blow him up?  For CLAMS?  Again: boggled!

Once I picked this book up, I had a hard time putting it back down again.  It’s an absolute must-read for anyone interested in protecting our wildlife, or, for that matter, anyone who simply loves a brilliantly weird story.  (And by the way, Craig, next time I see you, I’m going to need to hear more about those monkeys-in-their-hair ladies. Get ready to regale me with more!)

Highly recommended!


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2 Responses to “BOOK: Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty (2009) by Craig Welch”

  1. Jo Says:

    You had me at geoduck.

  2. Liz Says:

    Now THAT was a wise-quack!

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