Monday, April 26, 2010

The A-Team of the Sea--a Review of "Shell Games," by Craig Welch

Yes, this is a book about people who steal giant clams.

It’s also about grizzled cops, iconoclasts who sneak around in dockside bushes at midnight with surveillance cameras, saying “fuck you, man” to bureaucrats, resisting much, obeying little. They are Edward Abbey with a badge.

The smugglers, charismatic, diverse, and technology-driven, have set their sights on the geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”), the largest burrowing clam in the world, and one of the most beautifully-grotesque creatures you’ll find in the Northwest. (Picture a clam too large for its shell, and then append a giant, fleshy squash to its bulk. Or, embrace your baser instincts and think about a necessary appendage of the male anatomy, multiplying it in size by two or three—for some of us—and by more, for others). Crews set out at dusk on dark boats, keep the noise muffled with pillows and insulation, and send divers down to harvest. The geoduck, on the seafood black market (which is a real thing), is almost priceless.

If overfishing serves a purpose, it must be to demonstrate that marine ecosystems are fragile. A high geoduck population, as well as other bivalves (clams, mussels, and oysters) was proving—in its fast decline—beneficial to the waterways of Puget Sound. No geoducks, unclean water.

Enter, then, Wilderness Warrior Ed Volz, a subterranean agent of the feds who made his living chasing elk-antler thieves and eagle-talon poachers. Volz hunts the hunters, and it was clear that illegal harvests were threatening the marine wildlife of the Pacific Northwest. He was asked to form a crew, an A-Team (of the sea). Their goal was to seek out and track what turned out to be a major crime syndicate, lead by “The Kingpin,” a man who called himself “Geoduck Gotti.”

Volz’s crew of bearded outcasts and mountain men had powers of deduction and a severe work ethic. They gave up quiet nights at home to sit in their parked trucks doing stakeouts on waterways. They climbed seaside bluffs at midnight for clear views of pirate boats. And then, the dark side of the job took hold. They went undercover as black-market dealers, set up illegal transactions, and engaged in old school shake downs. Seafood pirates made deals, feeding a burgeoning Asian market. They assassinated people…over clams. And Edward “Hannibal” Volz (not a real nickname), walked a thin line of the law—like any half-vigilante worth a damn—in order to drown the whole operation.

(Disclaimer: moderately speedy boat chases may cause excitement!)

This is a work of almost pure nonfiction, taken from interviews with the agents and those they hunted down. The story sheds light on a fascinating part of the criminal justice system, our own Northwest ecosystem, and the criminal world. Author Craig Welch, chief environmental writer for the Seattle Times, introduces us to the geoduck, its ocean purpose, and the greater environmental implications of tampering with it (the story also involves trafficking in bear gall bladders and butterflies, crab-thieves, and poachers of baby leopard sharks, offering a more rounded view of wildlife poaching).

Shell Games is a truly wild story about the detailed problems of the fishing industry, its black-market underbelly, and the truth about what happens when we rob nature. We go to prison.