A two-year undercover investigation by state and federal authorities of illegal trafficking of paddlefish eggs in Central Missouri has resulted in the arrest of eight men on federal charges of illegal sales of paddlefish eggs as caviar.
On Wednesday and Thursday 85 conservation agents of the Missouri Department of Conservation and 40 special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted more than 100 suspects to issue citations and execute arrest warrants.
The investigation revealed poachers in Central Missouri were using eggs taken from paddlefish and selling them in the United States and in other countries as caviar.
The area in Central Missouri near Warsaw along the Osage River each year attracts about 16,000 sport paddlefish snaggers. It is known as the "Paddlefish Capital of the World."
The section of the Osage River near Warsaw is a paddlefish hot spot because it is blocked upstream by Truman Dam. When spawning paddlefish reach the dam their route is blocked and many of them collect in the area.
During the spawning season in the spring, there is a heavy concentration in that area of female paddlefish laden with eggs. Paddlefish poachers gather there to illegally acquire fish eggs for national and international illegal caviar markets.
"The national and international popularity of Missouri paddlefish eggs," said Missouri Department of Conservation Protection Chief Larry Yamnitz, "as a source of caviar has grown dramatically in recent years. 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."
Paddlefish, also known as spoonbills, can grow to seven-feet long and weigh 160 pounds or more. They are valued as a sport fish both for their size and for eating. They also are valued for their eggs that international poachers are now using as caviar.
Yamnitz said about 20 pounds of eggs or more can be harvested from a large, pregnant female paddlefish. Retail prices for paddlefish caviar vary and are now at about $35 an ounce.
Caviar prices in illegal markets also vary but Yamnitz said illegal paddlefish egg sales are now going for about $13 an ounce. A single large female paddlefish, he said, with about 20 pounds of eggs is carrying about $4,000 worth of potential caviar for black market sales.
The undercover investigation was during the spring of 2011 and spring of 2012 paddlefish seasons. This month the investigation peaked with arrests.
Crimes tied to poaching involve violations of the federal Lacey Act.
Missouri law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs. Missouri law also prohibits the sale or purchase of paddlefish eggs.
The federal Lacey Act makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase fish with a market value of more than $350 that were taken or sold in violation of any state law or regulation.
Arrested and charged in U.S. Western District Court are Arkadiy Lvovskiy, Dmitri Elitchev, Artour Magdessian, Felix Baravik, Petr Babenko, Bogdan Nahapetyan, Fedor Pakhnyuk and Andrew Praskovsky.
Lvovskiy, Elitchev, Magdessian and Baravik were charged with conspiring to violate the Lacey Act and trafficking in paddlefish eggs.
The federal indictment charges in the spring of 2011 and 2012 they traveled to Warsaw and engaged in multiple, illegal purchases of paddlefish and processed the eggs into caviar.
Praskovsky was charged with attempting to export paddlefish eggs in checked luggage on an international flight departing from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. The eggs were seized because they can be exported only if they are accompanied by a valid permit issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species.
If convicted, the eight men face a penalty of five years in a federal prison and a $250,000 fine for each count as well as forfeiture of any vehicles that were used in the commission of crimes.
Yamnitz said Warsaw area residents alerted state conservation agents to paddlefish poaching of eggs for domestic and foreign sales as caviar.
"We are grateful to them," Yamnitz said, "and encourage anyone spotting suspected illegal fishing or hunting to contact their local conservation agent.