|American paddlefish. Photo by USFWS.|
Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that three Colorado men pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to illegally trafficking in paddlefish caviar after being caught in an undercover operation in the Warsaw, Missouri area.
In support of Missouri’s paddlefish conservation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation conducted a covert investigation, “Operation Roadhouse,” centered on an area known as the Roadhouse in Warsaw. As part of the covert operation, state and federal officers operated a paddlefish snagging business. Covert officers also sold paddlefish to people who were interested in buying them.
“Federal law protects our natural resources, such as Missouri’s paddlefish, which have been over-fished until their population has suffered a steep decline,” Dickinson said. “We take seriously the environmental protections provided by federal and state laws, and will investigate and prosecute those who violate them.”
“The American paddlefish is an important cultural and sport-fishing resource to the people of Missouri. This investigation reaffirms our commitment to work with our state wildlife law enforcement partners to protect our nation's wildlife resources and hold violators accountable for their actions,” said Edward Grace, Deputy Chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement.
“We appreciated the support and partnership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section in helping to protect Missouri’s natural resources,” said Missouri Department of Conservation Protection Chief Larry Yamnitz.
Arkadiy Lvovskiy, 54, of Aurora, Colorado., and Dmitri Elitchev, 49, of Centennial, Colorado., pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Matt J. Whitworth to participating in a conspiracy to illegally traffic in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act. Artour Magdessian, 48, of Lone Tree, Colorado., pleaded guilty to trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act.
By pleading guilty yesterday, Lvovskiy and Elitchev admitted that in April 2011 they traveled to Warsaw, where they illegally purchased five female paddlefish and a container of paddlefish eggs. They processed the eggs from all of those paddlefish into caviar and transported them from Missouri to Colorado. Lvovskiy and Elitchev further admitted that they returned to Warsaw, in March 2012 and purchased eight more female paddlefish. As they had in 2011, they processed the eggs into caviar and transported them from Missouri to Colorado.
Lvovskiy, Elitchev, and Magdessian further admitted that they traveled to Warsaw in April 2012 with co-defendant Felix Baravik, 50, of Aurora, Colorado. While in Warsaw, the men befriended covert Fish and Wildlife Service agents who were posing as fishermen staying in the same area. The defendants purchased two female paddlefish from the covert agents. The defendants also purchased three more female paddlefish from other sources and harvested paddlefish in excess of the Missouri take and possession limits. The defendants processed the eggs from all of those paddlefish into caviar and transported them from Missouri to Colorado.
The retail value of the paddlefish caviar at issue in this case is estimated to be between $30,000 and $50,000.
Baravik pleaded guilty on August 19, 2014, to illegally trafficking in paddlefish in violation of the Lacey Act.
Under federal statutes, Lvovskiy, Elitchev and Magdessian are each subject to a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000. Sentencing hearings will be scheduled after the completion of presentence investigations by the United States Probation Office.
The Lacey Act
The Lacey Act is a federal statute which makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase fish that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any state, or to attempt to do so. Such conduct constitutes a felony crime if the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct involving the purchase or sale, offer to purchase or sell, or intent to purchase or sell, fish with a market value in excess of $350, knowing that the fish were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of, or in a manner unlawful under, a law or regulation of any state.
The American paddlefish (Polydon spathula), also called the Mississippi paddlefish or the “spoonbill,” is a freshwater fish that is primarily found in the Mississippi River drainage system. Paddlefish eggs are marketed as caviar. Paddlefish were once common in waters throughout the Midwest. However, the global decline in other caviar sources, such as sturgeon, has led to an increased demand for paddlefish caviar. This increased demand has led to over-fishing of paddlefish, and consequent decline of the paddlefish population.
Missouri law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs which have been removed or extracted from a paddlefish carcass. Missouri law also prohibits the sale or purchase, or offer of sale or purchase, of paddlefish eggs. There are also several restrictions on the purchase and possession of whole paddlefish in Missouri.
This case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney James B. Nelson of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence E. Miller of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri. It was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation, with assistance by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.