Shell Games

Craig Welch drops readers overboard into the frigid waters of Puget Sound, which sits south of the border between the U.S. and Canada. The Sound is home to the magnificent geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), the world's largest burrowing clam, a bizarre-looking creature than can live a century and a half. This bivalve is comically proportioned but increasingly fashionable as seafood. It has been the subject of pranks, TV specials, gourmet feasts, and a legal commercial fishing industry. But this shellfish is so valuable it’s also traded for millions of dollars on the black market—a world where outlaw scuba divers dodge cops while using souped-up boats, night-vision goggles, and weighted belts to pluck the succulent treasures from the sea floor. The thieves work near whales, sharks and half-ton sea lions, but

illustration: Whitney Stensrud

Shell Games is a unique blend of natural history and crime caper—a real-life drama about the theft of some of the world’s most unusual creatures, set in one of the planet’s most beautiful places. But this extraordinary true story also serves as an exploration of North America’s changing role in the global underground.

the greatest dangers come from rival poachers who resort to arson and hit men to eliminate competition and stake their claim in the illicit geoduck market.

Wildlife detective Ed Volz had spent his life chasing elk-antler thieves, bobcat smugglers, and eagle talon poachers. Now he was determined to find the kingpin of the geoduck underworld. He and a team of state and federal agents set up illegal sales, secretly recorded conversations, and photographed hand-offs from the bushes. For years, they tracked a rogues' gallery of lawbreakers, and eventually found themselves face to face with the biggest thief of all—a darkly charming con man who called himself the “Geoduck Gotti,” a fisherman who worked both sides of the law.

In Shell Games, veteran environmental journalist Welch delves into the wilds of our nation's waters and forests in search of some of America's strangest criminals and the cops who are on a mission to take them down. This thrilling examination of the international black market for wildlife is filled with butterfly thieves, abalone poachers, undercover operatives, bear slayers, and shark-trafficking pastors—all part of one of the largest illegal trades in the world.