Missouri paddlefish fingerlings still vulnerable
SWEET SPRINGS - As the annual paddlefish snagging season began Sunday, conservation biologists got more creative in their management strategies of the vulnerable fish.
This year, a new Missouri Department of Conservation five-year program asks anglers to report fish they snag that have numbered metal jaw tags. About 2,000 paddlefish each in the Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Lake and Table Rock Lake are swimming around with the tags, meant to monitor their populations.
Still, amid yearly efforts to restock and manage the populations of this prehistoric fish, a threat looms: poachers.
In 2013, a ring of caviar poachers was caught in a successful sting operation by the conservation department's protection division. The operation brought in $61,488.50 in fines for poaching the paddlefish, sometimes called Missouri's "spoonbill."
Rob Farr, an investigator with the department's protection division in Benton County, has a long history monitoring the poaching threat, which has persisted since the 1980s. Farr was on the investigative team in 2013, and said even with the latest round of fines and charges, the poaching threat to paddlefish remains a concern in Missouri.
"It was a good operation here and we caught a lot of people that needed to be caught and taught a lot of people lessons they needed to learn," Farr said. "I don't think we stopped it, no I don't - that's like saying you think you stopped the drug trade by making a drug bust. You do the best you can to contain it."
It's a cause for concern given the ongoing effort to sustain the paddlefish population.
In preparation for the 2015 season, thousands of baby paddlefish - fingerlings, as they're called - were harvested from Blind Pony Fish Hatchery in Sweet Springs in September. They were transferred to the three nearby lakes to boost their populations.
Bucket by bucket, 10-inch fingerlings moved from hatchery ponds to a conservation department truck. Department and Blind Pony Hatchery staff scooped up more than 12,000 fish at the hatchery Sept. 23 and 24 alone (watch video).
The hotspot for the poaching incidents is not far away in Benton County - the nucleus of illicit activity is in Warsaw, Mo., the so-called "paddlefish poaching capital of the world."
Trish Yasger, fisheries management biologist with the department, hopes that the new tagging program combined with restocking efforts will keep the paddlefish population intact.
"Without annual stocking by Conservation Department staff, this popular pastime and food source would go away," Yasger said in a recent news release. "We manage and monitor paddlefish populations around the state, but need help from snaggers to learn more and to better manage this popular game fish."
Paddlefish poaching, by the numbers
Larry Yamnitz protection division chief for the conservation department, oversaw the 2013 investigation alongside Farr. Yamnitz told a reporter in October that the paddlefish population in 2010 through 2013 had been "hit pretty hard illegally," but the poaching problem seems to be slowly improving.
During the 2013 sting, 11 people were arrested, accounting for 256 state charges.
Of the state charges, 240 of the 256 have been decided through Missouri courts. Most resulted in fines or minor jail sentences, Yamnitz said.
Yamnitz said six people are still awaiting trial on state charges, and there are still a few people from outside of Missouri with warrants out for their arrest
Eight people were charged and more than 100 people were also issued citations "in the bust that culminated a multi-year investigation into the illegal commercialization of Missouri paddlefish and their eggs for caviar," according to a press release by the Justice Department.
Eight defendants are involved in 16 pending federal cases.
Although most of the charges from the 2013 sting have been decided, an accelerated jury trial for Andrew Alexander Praskovsky, who was charged with two felony counts of "import or exports of fish, wildlife or plants," is set for March 30 in Jefferson City, according to a Western District of Missouri case docket.
Others facing federal charges for buying paddlefish and processing the eggs into caviar are Arkadiy Lvovskiy, 51, of Aurora, Colo.; Dmitri Elitchev, 46, of Centennial, Colo.; Artour Magdessian, 46, of Lone Tree, Colo.; Felix Baravik, 48, of Aurora, Colo.; Petr Babenko, 42, of Vineland, N.J.; and Bogdan Nahapetyan, 33, of Lake Ozark. Fedor Pakhnyuk, 39, of Hinsdale, Ill., faces charges on trying to set up a business to market processed paddlefish caviar in Chicago, the Associated Press reported.
Preserving paddlefish populations
Yamnitz considers the sting operation an important step in addressing the poaching problem.
"The investigation caught the problem and we have been able to put more paddlefish into the population," Yamnitz said in an interview in November. "We're not concerned about putting fish back in there because we think we've been successful in educating people - someone is going to turn you in if you do it."
The state's paddlefish population is healthy currently, Yamnitz said.
Still, the illegal trade has the potential for healthy payout. A pregnant paddlefish can weigh anywhere from 50 to more than 100 pounds and typically has about 20 pounds of eggs. Caviar is harvested from those eggs and sold for as much as $35 an ounce.
A single paddlefish typically nets about $4,000 worth of caviar.
The poaching problem arrived in Mid-Missouri when the Caspian Sea was exhausted of much of the world's source for the high-brow hors d'oeuvre, said Yasger, an expert on paddlefish and fisheries management.
"The Caspian Sea has been fished out, and paddlefish eggs are a good substitute," Yasger said. "Less and less of the world's caviar has been harvested there since the 1980s."
Yasger said paddlefish normally take about seven years to reach sexual maturity, although some fish take up to nine years. The bigger the fish, the more eggs it will produce. The average size ranges from 40 to 75 pounds, but paddlefish, especially females, typically reach 100 pounds or more.
The state record is a 139-pound paddlefish.
Yamnitz and Farr can only guess how much caviar poachers illegally exported over the years.
"It's difficult to say for sure, Yamnitz said. "We think we caught an active poaching group before they were able to impact the populations of paddlefish significantly."
"I agree, there's no one way of knowing," Farr said. "There would have been tremendous amount."
The snagging season runs from March 15 through April 30, but there's no guarantee the new tag program and continuous restocking will keep every spoonbill away from illegal harvesting, experts say.
"As long as there's demand for the caviar, the poaching is going to be a problem for this fish," Yasger said.
Rewards for tags
According to a press release from the conservation department, anglers who report tagged, legal-sized paddlefish will receive a t-shirt that reads: "I caught a Missouri paddlefish!"
Rewards will not be given for sublegal fish - it's illegal to catch paddlefish less than 24 inches in length.
"All returned and reported tags for the season will be placed into drawings each summer for a small number of cash prizes with a grand prize of $500," Yasger said in the press release.
Tags can be reported by calling (573)579-6825, or by mailing information to the Missouri Department of Conservation at 3815 East Jackson Boulevard., Jackson, Mo., 63755.