Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty

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When we think of wildlife trafficking, we usually think of stories like this one from the December issue of Smithsonian, which details the exotic creatures being stolen from Ecuador's rainforest. We don't think about the trafficking taking place here in the United States, and we certainly don't think that the food on our plate could have been obtained illegally. Craig Welch, in his story about geoduck clams last year, gave a hint of the craziness behind shellfish smuggling in the Pacific Northwest:

Bandits falsify records, stash their stolen geoduck contraband in secret compartments in boat hulls, or employ night-vision goggles to grab thousands of geoducks after dark, when clam fishing is illegal. "We've seen tax evasion, extortion, mail fraud, money laundering, people trading clams for Vicodin—you name it," says Lt. Ed Volz, head of special investigations for . "There's just tremendous money to be made."
Wildlife authorities have stepped up undercover investigations, spying on geoduck thieves from boats (though some poachers use radar to detect vessels trailing them), conducting surveillance from beaches and using underwater cameras to document thefts. In a sting operation a decade ago, one geoduck dealer paid a hit man $5,000 to rough up a rival who was driving up the wages divers earned digging geoducks. The "hit man"—an informant—recorded the transaction for federal agents. The would-be victim was ushered into hiding and the dealer arrested. Today the informant, too, is in prison, convicted in 2003 of masterminding a new smuggling ring that illegally harvested more than $1 million worth of geoducks.

When I first read Welch's story, I could hardly believe that these tales could be true. These are just clams (albeit really big clams). Could anyone really be willing to go to such lengths for shellfish?

Sadly, the answer is yes, and Welch goes into far more detail in his new book, Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature's Bounty. There are wildlife cops who go undercover to ferret out smuggling rings and conduct late-night chases to track down poachers. There are informants who help federal agents to expose the wrongdoings of fisherman and seafood dealers who had been lured by the easy money of trafficking in the wealth of the sea.

Welch focuses on the wildlife cops of northwestern Washington State and their work tracking down poachers and smugglers of geoducks, crabs and abalone, but his book is also interspersed with tales of other trafficked wildlife, such as the Japanese man who traded thousands of dollars of rare, illegal butterflies and the breeders of roller pigeons who were arrested for killing birds of prey. The most bizarre story links the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (that is, the Moonies), most famous here in Washington for its ownership of the Washington Times, to the illegal sales of baby sharks for saltwater aquariums.

I suppose I shouldn't be all that shocked by these crimes. If there is money to be had, some people will go after it, no matter the legality or the consequences. But those consequences worry me. Poaching is driving some species towards extinction, with unknown repercussions for ecosystems. Efforts to conserve and save species for the future are undermined by greed. And lives are even put in danger when the stolen fish and shellfish are taken from waters put off limits for health reasons; they can be snatched from areas near sewage outfalls, for example, or during red tides.

Welch says that the problem is getting worse here in the United States. Perhaps his book will help to raise the profile of this issue. "Clam smuggling" can sound funny, but it's an issue that deserves attention.

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