Nieman Class of 2007
Welch has been the Seattle Times’ environment writer for the past 13 years, and in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting he recently published a massive multimedia project on ocean acidification. He has written for the Washington Post, Smithsonian and Newsweek, and has twice been named Outstanding Beat Reporter of the Year by the national Society of Environmental Journalists. His first book, Shell Games, is a natural-history crime narrative about wildlife trafficking, centered on an odd Pacific Northwest clam called a geoduck. The irresistible summary: “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.”
—“Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” about ocean acidification. Excerpt:
Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea — Katharina Fabricius plunged from a dive boat into the Pacific Ocean of tomorrow.
She kicked through blue water until she spotted a ceramic tile attached to the bottom of a reef.
A year earlier, the ecologist from the Australian Institute of Marine Science had placed this small square near a fissure in the sea floor where gas bubbles up from the earth. She hoped the next generation of baby corals would settle on it and take root.
Fabricius yanked a knife from her ankle holster, unscrewed the plate and pulled it close. Even underwater the problem was clear. Tiles from healthy reefs nearby were covered with budding coral colonies in starbursts of red, yellow, pink, and blue. This plate was coated with a filthy film of algae and fringed with hairy sprigs of seaweed.
Instead of a brilliant new coral reef, what sprouted here resembled a slimy lake bottom.
Isolating the cause was easy. Only one thing separated this spot from the lush tropical reefs a few hundred yards away.
—Shell Games: A True Story of Cops, Con Men, and the Smuggling of America’s Strangest Wildlife, his book about the underground market for the odd geoduck, the world’s largest burrowing clam. Excerpt:
From a distance, the boat didn’t look like much. Aluminum with blue trim. A row of smudged cabin windows. A thick center mast crowded with antennas and loudspeakers. Through moonlight and a light rain, Detective Ed Volz could see a curtain of black rubber cloaking half of the vessel like a tent. He couldn’t spot the orange glow of a single cigarette and suspected the captain had ordered his crew not to smoke.
Volz and a partner, Bill Jarmon, were crouched behind Douglas firs and madronas on a wooded bluff overlooking Puget Sound. They peered down a sandy cliff, Volz through a spotting scope, Jarmon through binoculars, at the boat idling below. Volz heard little other than the wind and the waves. He knew a pair of aging mattresses stuffed in old sleeping bags had been wrapped around an air compressor, muffling its groan. No one who passed by would suspect it fed oxygen through a hose to a thief below.
Volz had never been diving. But he knew what could be found in the region’s murky underwater world. In the sound’s web of tideflats, channels, marshes, bays and deltas, life took beguiling forms — particularly in the dimmest depths. Shovel-nosed ratfish patrolled the cobble flats alongside wolf eels with pinched faces that looked chiseled from granite. Anemones glowed in waggling fingers of lavender or in perfect white cauliflower stalks. Ochre sea stars the size of cow heads curled around rocks and mussels, gauging light through the red dots on each arm. Bubble gum-pink corals camouflaged the porcupine shields of sea urchins.
Rockfish, perch, lingcod, squid. At one time or another, the detectives had found all of these and more in places they did not belong — in nets tied under docks to be retrieved after dark, in aquariums or coolers hidden under tarps in old pickups, on ice in the holding tanks of pirate fishing boats. Thieves hooked, netted, dug and snatched these creatures and then sold them for food, pets, trophies, even medicine. Some took a few plants and animals. Others hijacked sea life by the truckload. Volz couldn’t recall all the ways he’d seen people steal.
Volz made his living policing the theft of wild things. In 25 years with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, he’d chased elk-antler thieves and smugglers exporting bobcat and lynx to collectors. He’d caught poachers who’d hacked off eagle talons for artifact hunters. He carried handcuffs and operated with all the police powers of other lawmen. Here on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains, he and his fellow detectives specialized in undercover investigations, mostly involving the region’s billion-dollar fishing industry. They’d tracked permits and bank records and trapped Dungeness crab thieves and snared abalone poachers who pried the fist-size mollusks from rocky crevices. They’d never pursued anyone quite like this captain.
—“The Spotted Owl’s New Nemesis,” Smithsonian, about an unexpected threat to a favorite bird. Excerpt:
Eric Forsman tramped across the spongy ground with one ear tipped to the tangled branches above. We were circling an isolated Douglas fir and cedar stand near Mary’s Peak, the highest point in Oregon’s Coast Range, scouring the trees for a puff of tobacco-hued feathers. I had come to see one of the planet’s most-studied birds—the Northern spotted owl—with the man who brought the animal to the world’s attention.
Forsman stopped. “You hear it?” he asked. I didn’t. Above the twitter of winter wrens I caught only the plunk of a creek running through hollow logs. Then Forsman nodded at a scraggly hemlock. Twenty feet off the ground, a cantaloupe-size spotted owl stared back at us. “It’s the male,” he whispered.
Before I could speak, Forsman was gone. The 61-year-old U.S. Forest Service biologist zipped down one fern-slippery hill and up another. For years, he’d explained, this bird and its mate pumped out babies like fertile field mice, producing more offspring than other spotted owls in the range. Forsman wanted to reach their nest to see if this year’s eggs had hatched—and survived.
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.