Undercover investigation leads to arrests and/or citations of more than 100 suspects.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Known as the “Paddlefish Capital of the World,” Warsaw, Missouri, is a favorite area for many of Missouri’s approximately 16,000 sport paddlefish snaggers because of its location along the Osage River. Agents with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) discovered that the Warsaw area is also a favorite location for paddlefish poachers.
A cooperative undercover investigation by the two agencies recently resulted in more than 100 suspects from Missouri and eight other states being issued citations and/or arrest warrants for state and federal crimes related to paddlefish poaching.
Missouri’s official state aquatic animal, the paddlefish is an ancient species. Also called spoonbills, they can grow up to seven-feet long and weigh 160 pounds or more. Paddlefish are valued as a sport fish for both their size, and for eating. Paddlefish are also valued for their eggs, or roe, which are eaten as caviar.
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 and their numbers increase dramatically. This dramatically increases sport anglers’ chances of snagging the big fish with a random jerk on a fishing line equipped with large hooks.
This concentration of female paddlefish laden with eggs also makes Warsaw a prime location for paddlefish poachers to get the fish eggs for national and international illegal caviar markets.
“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.”
Caviar is a delicacy created by preserving fish roe in special salts. According to MDC, about 20 pounds of eggs or more can be harvested from a large, pregnant female paddlefish. Retail prices for paddlefish caviar vary. A current common retail price is about $35 per ounce.
“Caviar prices in illegal or black markets also vary,” Yamnitz said. “A common black-market price is about $13 an ounce. Therefore, a single large female paddlefish with about 20 pounds of eggs is carrying about $4,000 worth of potential caviar for black market sales.”
UNDERCOVER POACHING INVESTIGATION PAYS OFF
Over the course of March 13 and 14, approximately 85 conservation agents of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), 40 special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USWFS), and wildlife officers from other states contacted more than 100 suspects in Missouri and eight other states to issue citations, execute arrest warrants, conduct interviews and gather additional information regarding a paddlefish-poaching investigation.
The effort included eight individuals indicted for federal crimes involving the illegal trafficking of paddlefish and their eggs for use as caviar. Other states involved were Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
The arrests and citations were the result of a multi-year joint undercover investigation by MDC conservation agents and special agents of the USFWS involving the illegal commercialization of Missouri paddlefish and their eggs for national and international caviar markets. The undercover investigation ran during the spring 2011 and spring 2012 paddlefish seasons, March 15 through April 30. It was based out of Warsaw, Missouri. Additional MDC conservation agents and federal agents supported the undercover operation.
“Sport anglers may only catch two paddlefish daily and the eggs may not be bought, sold or offered for sale,” Yamnitz explained. “Extracted paddlefish eggs may not be possessed on waters of the state or adjacent banks and may not be transported. Paddlefish and their eggs may be commercially harvested only from the Mississippi River.”
He added that through the undercover operation, agents were able to identify suspects engaged in wildlife violations involving the illegal purchase, resale and transport of paddlefish and their eggs, document other violations of the Missouri Wildlife Code in addition to the core investigation, and determine that paddlefish eggs harvested in Missouri were being illegally transported out of the state for redistribution.
Federal crimes tied to the poaching involve violations of the Lacey Act. The Act makes it a federal crime to poach game in one state with the purpose of selling the bounty in another state and prohibits the transportation of illegally captured or prohibited wildlife across state lines.
MDC and the USFWS worked with the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Benton County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Department of Justice on the investigation.
Identification of suspects in violation of state wildlife charges is pending legal filings. Copies of the federal indictments may be obtained from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas City.
Yamnitz added that additional details about the undercover operation are vital to the investigation and prosecution of cases and therefore not available at this time.
HELP STOP POACHING
The investigation began with tips from the public about illegal activities.
“Individuals from the Warsaw area first alerted us to potential paddlefish poaching in the area,” said Yamnitz. “We are grateful to them, and encourage anyone spotting suspected illegal fishing or hunting activity to contact their local conservation agent, or call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-392-1111, 24 hours a day. Callers may remain anonymous and rewards are available for information leading to arrests.”
POPULARITY OF MISSOURI PADDLEFISH
Paddlefish are highly valued by both sport anglers and commercial fishermen. Through MDC stocking efforts at three large reservoirs, Missouri is able to offer some of the best paddlefish snagging fisheries in the U.S. The fisheries are at Lake of the Ozarks and its tributaries, Harry S. Truman Reservoir and its tributaries, and Table Rock Lake and its tributaries, primarily the James River arm.
Without MDC’s stocking of these fisheries, and other paddlefish management practices, paddlefish numbers would sharply decline in Missouri’s reservoirs, reducing opportunities for sport snaggers.
In the past, paddlefish were naturally abundant in Missouri, but their numbers declined because of channelization, damming, impoundments and other river modifications. These modifications have greatly diminished the natural habitat paddlefish need to reproduce in the wild.
Today, paddlefish in Missouri must be stocked. MDC stocks about 45,000 hatchery-produced 10-12-inch-long paddlefish fingerlings each year in Missouri’s three main paddlefish locations: Table Rock Lake, Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks.
Paddlefish are an ancient species of fish that date back to the times of dinosaurs. The sturgeon is a similar species of fish. Both are popular for their flesh and their eggs, or roe, which is used as caviar. Paddlefish, also known as spoonbills, are most easily identified by their paddle-shaped nose, which accounts for about one-third of their body length.
Paddlefish are cartilaginous, which means that they have no bones. They are bluish-gray to blackish on the back and grade to white on the belly. They have small eyes and no scales.
Paddlefish are filter feeders. Despite their large adult size, paddlefish eat tiny crustaceans and insects, called zooplankton, as they constantly swim slowly through water with their mouths wide open.
Paddlefish can grow to a length of about seven feet, weigh up to 160 pounds or more, and live 30 years or more. Females grow larger and heavier than males. It takes about 6-8 years for a paddlefish to reach legal harvest size (34-inches) in Missouri’s large reservoirs. Female paddlefish reach sexual maturity at 8-10 years and spawn every 2-3 years. Male paddlefish reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years and spawn annually. The egg masses of female paddlefish can be up to 25 percent of their body weight, with a large female paddlefish carrying about 20 pounds of eggs, or roe.
Paddlefish live mostly in open waters of big rivers and were historically found in the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage rivers, along with other streams. Paddlefish spend most of the year dispersed throughout large reservoirs and rivers until warm spring rains increase flows and raise water temperatures, which prompts the big fish to swim upstream on their spawning run. Spawning runs occur in late spring at times of increased water flow. It is triggered by a combination of daylight, water temperature, and water flow.
Because they are filter feeders that eat tiny crustaceans and insects, paddlefish have no interest in traditional fishing lures and bait.
The most popular and dependable way to catch paddlefish is by snagging. This involves using a stiff, strong 6-9-foot pole with a heavy-duty reel and line. A sinker weight is attached near the end of the line, and a hook or cluster of hooks is attached to the end of the line.
Snaggers cast their lines so the sinkers hit the bottom of the river or lake. They then sweep the pole back and forth so the line moves through the water. This sweeping motion jerks the hooks through the water, followed by reeling to take up slack from the jerk. This allows the hooks to “snag” paddlefish to be reeled in.