Call it criminal caviar: Undercover U.S. officials spent two years infiltrating the black market in illegal paddlefish eggs in a sleepy Missouri town.
A large female paddlefish will carry upwards of nine kilograms of roe. On the black market, 100 grams sells for about $40.
Andrew Praskovsky, a 42-year-old from Colorado, made a pilgrimage to his native Russia every year. But in April 2012, his trip was cut short when U.S. federal agents descended on him at the airport to seize contraband from his luggage.
More than 1.8 kilograms of illegally extracted paddlefish caviar from a sleepy stretch of the Osage River, just downstream from the Harry S. Truman Dam, about a two-hour drive southeast of Kansas City. At the time, the caviar would have fetched more than $2,500 on the retail market, and exponentially more if intentionally mislabelled.
Praskovsky was charged with trafficking and will go on trial in March. He was one of eight men arrested during “Operation Roadhouse,” an investigation led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife that looked more like a high-stakes drug-ring bust, complete with undercover agents.
The operation was the largest of its kind in the U.S., focusing on an area in Warsaw, Mo., known as the Roadhouse. Federal and state investigators set up a fake paddlefish snagging operation meant to target those interested in illegally purchasing fish roe.
The two-year investigation culminated in the issuing of more than 100 state citations relating to illegal and unlicensed paddlefish exploitation. The town of Warsaw, population 2,127, is the self-proclaimed paddlefish capital of the world. It has become the unlikely centre of a black-market trade in paddlefish roe as Caspian sturgeon — the traditional source of high-grade caviar — becomes critically endangered following years of exploitation.
“When the Soviet Union crashed, organized crime groups took advantage of it and became very powerful in the region,” says Yuliya Zabyelina, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The profit funded the arms trade as well as human trafficking in the region.
This unregulated exploitation, however, has led to sturgeon’s near extinction and a moratorium being placed on fishing in the Northern Caspian, forcing these groups to set their sights elsewhere.
Of the eight men arrested, seven were from out of state, and all were originally from Eastern Europe.
American paddlefish — known by locals as spoonbill — is a freshwater species that shares common ancestry with Beluga sturgeon. It occupies slow-moving sections of the Missouri and Mississippi drainage basins.
The Osage River running through Warsaw is a hot spot for poachers because spawning fish are blocked upstream by a dam, dramatically increasing the chance of snagging an egg-bearing female.
Unlike neighbouring Oklahoma, Missouri’s regulations surrounding paddlefish snagging are also more liberal. Anglers are allowed to catch two fish per day during the season and can keep the roe for personal use.
In contrast, “in Oklahoma, folks take their fish to the (conservation) agency, and the agency will harvest the eggs, but keep them and return the prepared fish to the individual fisher and then the agency will sell the eggs,” says Larry Yamnitz of the Missouri Department of Conservation, who was a chief investigator in “Operation Roadhouse.”
Poaching paddlefish for the purpose of commercialization is illegal, as is the transport of paddlefish roe across state lines with the intention of selling it.
Paddlefish roe is attractive to traffickers because it can be processed into caviar similar in colour, size and texture to the prized caviar of the Caspian.
Though paddlefish roe does not fetch much, this changes dramatically when it is processed into caviar — 100 grams sells for about $40 on the black market and retails at more than three times that price. A large female paddlefish will carry upwards of nine kilograms of roe, with a potential value starting at $4,000. This soars when paddlefish caviar is mislabelled.
“The bulk of illegally poached caviar is being exported,” says Greg Conover, a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Officials believe the traffickers repackage paddlefish roe as a higher-grade, more expensive form of caviar.
“We have gathered people with empty caviar tins that are labelled as beluga Russian caviar, so you can put two and two together,” says Yamnitz.
It is sold in the U.S. or shipped to other countries, reaping huge profits that are recycled into other black-market endeavours.
“There is potentially an even greater market for caviar in Russia and Asia than in the U.S.,” says Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, a professor from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, who has discovered intentionally mislabelled paddlefish roe through genetic sampling.
Exploiting paddlefish in this way points to organization and a “level of sophistication beyond someone going fishing in their backyard,” she says, adding that “it’s being done by people who have thought this out, who are able to get this to the market and who are able to get a good price for it.”
“Wildlife trafficking is a very lucrative business that organized crime groups are utilizing to gain funds. I definitely think any time you have high numbers of illegal trafficking in wildlife that there are ties to some type of organized crime,” says Yamnitz