Agents with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently conducted a multi-year, undercover investigation that resulted in more than 100 suspects spanning nine states. The investigation, which ran during the spring 2011 and spring 2012 Missouri paddlefish seasons, also included the indictment of eight individuals for federal crimes involving the illegal trafficking of paddlefish and their eggs for use as caviar. “The national and international popularity of Missouri paddlefish eggs as a source of caviar has grown dramatically in recent years,” said MDC protection chief Larry Yamnitz. “This is a result of European sources of caviar having declined from overfishing of the Caspian Sea’s once plentiful and lucrative beluga sturgeon, another species of fish known for its caviar.”
The MDC states that the section of the Osage River running along Warsaw in Benton County is a paddlefish hot spot because it is blocked upstream by Truman Dam. When spawning paddlefish reach the dam, their route is blocked, increasing both their numbers as well as anglers’ chances of snagging them. This concentration of paddlefish, which is inevitably filled with egg-laden females, also makes Warsaw a prime location for poachers looking to obtain the fish eggs for sale in illegal caviar markets. Paddlefish may only be snagged during the snagging season, March 15-April 30. It is illegal to sell the eggs.
According to MDC, about 20 pounds of eggs or more can be harvested from a large female paddlefish. Retail prices for paddlefish caviar vary, but current common retail price is about $35 per ounce.
“A common black-market price is about $13 an ounce,” Yamnitz said. “A single large female paddlefish with about 20 pounds of eggs is carrying about $4,000 worth of potential caviar for black market sales.”
On March 13 and 14, 85 conservation agents from MDC, 40 special agents from USWFS, and wildlife officers from other states issued citations, executed arrest warrants, conducted interviews and gathered additional information regarding the investigation. Other states involved were Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.