“One nation’s extirpation of a species leads to another nation’s species being targeted for exploitation,” said Larry Yamnitz, Chief of the Protection Division of the Missouri Department of Conservation, as he accepted the 2017 National Geographic Wildlife Trafficking Investigation Award at the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Yamnitz received the award in recognition of a two-year undercover operation that his division ran in order to stop the illegal trafficking of American paddlefish and their eggs, which was putting increased pressure on these primitive fish.
Paddlefish have been around since the dinosaurs, but today they are facing modern challenges from dams, development and illegal fishing. The demand for caviar from the European paddlefish has nearly wiped out, or extirpated, the fish, which has led to a growing illegal commercial use of paddlefish from Missouri, whose eggs are being substituted for European paddlefish eggs in caviar.
Paddlefish are named for the long, flat snout which accounts for a third of their length. They feed on tiny zooplankton, but they eat well enough that they may grow to over 100 pounds. Because the fish eat only zooplankton, they won’t bite on lures or bait like sportfish, but they may be snagged during the spring season.
A large female may yield 20 pounds of eggs, which may have a value of over $3,000 when processed into caviar according to some estimates. "The caviar is not only considered a delicacy by many people of eastern European descent, but for some it is considered to have medicinal qualities," Yamnitz said in a discussion of the sting.
Missouri conservation staff knew something was going on when they began getting complaints from anglers that people were taking eggs from paddlefish they caught during their annual spring snagging season.
Much of this activity was coming from the Lake of the Ozarks near Warsaw, Missouri, which bills itself as the "Paddlefish Capital of the World". "When word gets out that the paddlefish are running, enthusiasts converge on Warsaw from around the country," said Dean Harre, Ozark Unit Field Chief of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
To document illegal sales and overharvest of paddlefish, wardens went undercover, setting up an operation where anglers paid a small fee to use a pier for snagging paddlefish. People signed in to use the pier, and often had their paddlefish photographed and weighed, so wardens had evidence if the fishermen kept too many paddlefish or sold the eggs for caviar.
The daily limit is two paddlefish during the spring snagging season. The project was called “Operation Roadhouse,” which is the local name for the area around the pier.
The two-year investigation took place in 2011 to 2012, and resulted in 256 citations being issued to 112 individual in 19 states. Combined federal and state fines totaled over $83,700, with a few cases still pending.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation officers in many states helped with the investigation.
“The cooperation and teamwork from all the states involved and the USFWS made a case of this scope possible,” Harre said. “Additionally, we had really good prosecutors, both on the state side and the federal side.”
The special investigation culminated in a coordinated, nationwide takedown that began at 7:00 a.m. CST on March 13, 2013. Approximately 85 Missouri Conservation Agents and 40 USFWS Special Agents traveled throughout Missouri, Oregon, Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois, South Carolina, Iowa and Kansas to execute arrest warrants, conduct interviews, issue citations, and gather intelligence on over 100 suspects. This nationwide takedown included arrests for eight individuals indicted for federal crimes involving the illegal trafficking of paddlefish and their eggs used as caviar.
Upon completion of the investigation and takedown, 256 citations were issued to 112 suspects. These individuals were from: Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, Oregon, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Iowa, Alaska, California, Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.
Convictions and Penalties:
State Summary: 112 defendants pled guilty. 240 of 256 charges resulted in convictions with fines of $44,600 and court costs of $17,888.50 for a total of $61,488.50. 35 defendants’ fishing privileges were revoked or suspended (one life, one 17 years, one 9 years, two 7 years, four 6 years and the rest under 5 years). The 16 cases left open are on 10 suspects and Failure to Appear (FTA) warrants have been issued by the Benton County, Pensylvania Office.
Federal Summary: 13 defendants for illegally trafficking in paddlefish; 12 plead guilty and 1 found guilty by jury trail. 5 felonies and 8 misdemeanors convictions, $22,250 fines, community services 750 hours, 10 years of probation, 2 on house arrest for 3 months, forfeiture of $2,000 for a van, and 2 defendants were revoked from fishing or accompanying anyone fishing anywhere in world for 2 years. Combined state and federal totals: $83,738.50.