Giant clams, illegal wildlife smuggling on eBay and the 'Geoduck Gotti'

Craig Welch's new 'Shell Games' tells the story of rogues, smugglers and the Pacific Northwest hunt for the world's largest burrowing clam.

Geoducks from the Pacific Northwest are found on tideflats and in marine bays as deep as 350 feet below the surface. They are served in high-end seafood restaurants around the U.S. or as sashimi and are especially popular in Hong Kong and China.

Craig Welch's new book Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty tells the story of the geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), the world's largest burrowing clam. It also puts to rest any lingering uncertainty that truth is stranger than fiction.

The clam's stats—it can weigh up to three pounds, it can live 150 years, and its siphon can stretch to three feet—pale in comparison to the bizarre world of geoduck poaching.

Welch, the chief environmental writer at The Seattle Times, tells the story of a man who dubbed himself the Geoduck Gotti, who stole millions of dollars worth of the clams, some of his divers pulling in $2,000 a night. There are boat chases, night vision goggles, hit men and aquarium fish wranglers. After reading Shell Games, I still wanted to know more about the geoducks, so I called Welch. And he kindly sent me the above photo.

I was surprised to learn that the two biggest wildlife poaching rings in the Pacific Northwest have been about geoduck clams. What is the big attraction?

It’s not really an issue about a particular species; it’s about money. They’re worth a lot of money, and it’s relatively easy to take them without being seen. That’s true of a lot of things. It’s not that difficult if you’re a hunter to shoot a bear in the woods and carve it up for a gallbladder. But it may be a little trickier to sell the gallbladder, which can fetch hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars in Asia, where it’s valued for its medicinal properties.

Have you eaten the clams?

Yes. I’m not a big clam guy. But if you like clams they’re really good, sweet, chewy, with a slightly orange flavor.

In order to know how much of the population is missing, you’d need an accurate count of how many are there. But you explain in the book how difficult it is to count, and that it might only happen every 20 years. So how can authorities tell what’s being taken illegally?

It’s really difficult. In a case by case basis, they backtrack from what’s been sold. They know who has licenses and what their quotas are, so if more than that is being shipped out, that raises a red flag. Environmentally, there’s no way to tell. They can guess how much poaching is going on, but they really don’t know. It’s still going on right now.

The divers (combined) can legally take 3 percent of all the geoduck available to be harvested in a given year. So what quota does that equate to for the main character in your book, and how much did he take?

He was allowed about 600 to 700 pounds a year, and he took 200,000.

How does globalization make it easier for crooks to steal and sell almost anything in nature?

The book that opened my eyes to this was Moises Naim’s Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy. People will find a way to make a profit on whatever it is that can be marketed. In the early ‘70s, things like geoducks weren’t sold anywhere for anything. Once you started selling them--after the first person introduced them to a restaurant in Hong Kong--then you have an entire world on the other side of the Pacific Ocean who wants to eat these things. And people here who wanted to make money off them. Pretty much anything you want, there’s a way to get it on the illegal side.

Is there more or less of this going on in the U.S. than there used to be?

China, which is the biggest market for geoducks, has surpassed the U.S. as the biggest consumer of illegal wildlife. There’s more coming into the U.S. than there is going out, but there’s more going out than there ever was.

What are some of the tricks that poachers use to get around paperwork, quotas, laws?

The only way the [legal] geoduck trade works is that officers of the law are out there all the time during the day, and divers come up and have to show their harvest. So the easiest thing to do is to dive at night. You get some tough men and women to dive in the middle of the night and haul the clams up when no one’s looking. Or they will go out during the day and tie [the clams] up under the boat. So when they check in with the officer, the bulk of their harvest is underwater.

With other things, there’s an endless variety—smugglers going across the border with things stuffed in their bodies; packages labeled “moth” which really contain some of the most endangered butterflies in the world; fiches stuffed in curling irons. Women with their hair in a big bun have stuffed tiny monkeys in there. Just last year, folks in upstate New York went across to Canada with live rattlesnakes stuffed in the panels of pickup trucks.

So the officers need to think as creatively as the poachers.

It’s a tough job. They like to compare themselves to the guys going after cocaine dealers. But the advantage with cocaine is that if you find it, someone has actually committed a crime. If you find someone with a refrigerator of geoduck, it’s not illegal--you can buy it in the market. That’s why you see wildlife cops doing these crazy undercover operations. There was a federal agent in the ‘90s who dressed up in a gorilla suit and sat on the back of a truck, trying to catch a guy trading in zoo animals.

Is illegal wildlife listed on eBay?

Sure. In the undercover operation [in the book], the cops actually put illegal species of butterflies on eBay to try to catch the smugglers. Some of the trade is unusual but legal, but it also happens illegally. There’s a big debate now on whether or not the ability to list things on eBay and other websites is responsible in part for the growth of the trade, or whether it’s just a new avenue.

So what’s your perspective on all this, as an environmental reporter?

It’s a tough road right now--we have climate change, and no one really knows how that will affect the systems; in the marine world we hear a lot about ocean acidification, and that affects shellfish first; and then you have poachers and habitat destruction. It’s one more thing nature doesn’t need.


Geoduck image: Natalie Fobes

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com