When they turn out the lights on the last newspaper in America, this is what readers will have lost: the spare, exhilarating prose of old-school newspapermen like Craig Welch. In Shell Games (William Morrow, 274 pages, $25.99), the environmental reporter for The Seattle Times follows wildlife detectives hot on the trail of seafood smugglers in Puget Sound.

Welch sets up his true-crime tale with a prologue straight out of a paperback thriller: Detectives for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife stake out a mysterious fishing boat they suspect is poaching geoducks (large, phallus-shaped burrowing clams, pronounced "gooey-duck") at night. To avoid detection, the cops must track the boat on foot or by off-road vehicle, a difficult task along the winding shoreline of Puget Sound. Suddenly, the fishing boat takes off. Scrambling to their SUV, the cops lose sight of their quarry. Then, just as they are about to give up the search, the boat roars out of the mist. End of prologue.

Having hooked his readers like prized coho salmon, Welch then feeds them plenty of line, tracing the history of wildlife smuggling in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Wildlife trafficking, in everything from tropical birds and rare butterflies still in their cocoons to such delicacies as black bear gall bladders and exotic shellfish for Asian markets, constitutes the third-largest illicit trade in the world, behind only drugs and guns.

Welch introduces readers to a rogues' gallery of Puget Sound poachers and smugglers who turn informant but are often indistinguishable from the crooks they're helping the cops catch. The author conceals the identity of his geoduck-smuggling kingpin until the final chapters of the book. Detectives enlist his disgruntled crew as informants, but the cops must still prove his connection to the fishing boat and its illegal catch.

Most of the action in Shell Games takes place before the events of 9/11 or soon after, but Welch is silent about the drain on resources the war on terrorism must pose for wildlife enforcement. Suicide bombers destroy human lives, whereas geoducks aren't even an endangered species; their harvest and trade are merely regulated.

The geoduck ring in Shell Games stole tons of clams worth millions. The ecological damage to Puget Sound, researchers say, could take decades to heal. As terrorism and climate change dominate the world agenda, the implication of Welch's book, although he never states it, is that the mighty geoduck may one day fall prey to the nation's shifting political priorities.


Craig Welch reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, April 30. Free.