Caviar’s Last Stand

How the international caviar underground ended up in the Ozarks

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Every spring, game warden Rob Farr patrols the reservoirs of the Osage River in central Missouri, near the town of Warsaw. A tall, bluff, gray-haired man in his late 50s, he’s worked as a Missouri Department of Conservation warden for 34 years, and he gives the rare impression of a man who thoroughly enjoys his job. “It’s just satisfying to catch someone who needs caught,” he says. Most of the violations he encounters on the water are minor: fishermen or women with expired fishing permits, boats carrying one fish too many or too short.

But as Farr pilots his motorboat across Lake Truman and the Lake of the Ozarks, he’s also looking for more sinister business. He tells me that years ago, people started finding stinking piles of dead fish, bellies slit and emptied, at the ends of Warsaw’s dirt roads, and he knew that what he’d long expected had finally come to pass. The centuries-long persecution of an ancient family of fish—a chase that had ricocheted from Russia to the Atlantic coast of North America to Kazhakstan and Iran—had entered its endgame. Caviar poaching had arrived in the Ozarks.

The most peculiar species in the Osage is the American paddlefish, which looks less like a fish than a prehistoric marine reptile. Nicknamed spoonbills, paddlefish have flattened snouts a third as long as their bodies, and the ungainly package of snout and body can be as much as seven feet long. Adults have large, toothless mouths and little interest in bait. The best way to catch one is to drag a hefty hook along the bottom of a river, pulling it back and forth—sometimes for hours—until hook snags fish and a silvery monster can be hauled to the surface. It is not, to put it politely, a game of skill, but aficionados say it’s addictive. “It’s like playing a one-armed bandit,” says Bryan Heinen, a popular local paddlefish guide who travels to Warsaw from his home in Nebraska each spring.”You never know what’s going to happen–so when you catch one, it’s a real adrenaline pump.”

While snaggers admire paddlefish for their size and strength, the species is most famous for its bloodline: they are related to sturgeon, the family of fish that supplies the world with caviar. Like sturgeon, female paddlefish bloat with tiny eggs, and a single paddlefish can contain ten pounds of roe, worth as much as $40,000 when labeled and sold as high-grade Russian caviar. But while spoonbill snaggers in Missouri are permitted to take the roe home for personal consumption, many gut the fish at the docks and toss the eggs into the water. They prefer the spoonbill’s firm, boneless white meat, which is said to taste vaguely like pork.

Bruce Lawrence, from Louisiana, Missouri, cleans a paddlefish and a sack of eggs that is the size of a large pork tenderloin was inside this female fish that weighed around 50 lbs. Paddlefish can contain as many as ten pounds of eggs. Missouri law requires that fishermen toss the eggs back into the lake.

Bruce Lawrence, from Louisiana, Missouri, cleans a paddlefish and a sack of eggs that is the size of a large pork tenderloin was inside this female fish that weighed around 50 lbs. Paddlefish can contain as many as ten pounds of eggs. Missouri law requires that fishermen toss the eggs back into the lake.

In the 1980s, when Farr was new at his post, a Missouri fisheries biologist named Kim Graham warned him that sturgeon were crashing worldwide, and that before long, the paddlefish in the Osage River were going to attract the interest of caviar smugglers. “He told me, ‘Look, there’s a market for this stuff, and there are way too many fish here for guys not to show up soon, so keep your eyes out,’” Farr remembers.

A few years later, paddlefish carcasses started appearing around Warsaw. Some had been tossed into the woods. Others had been tied to rocks and sunk into the reservoirs, only to float free and wash up on shore. All had been knifed open, their eggs gone. Caviar poachers had already decimated paddlefish populations in some rivers in Tennessee and Kentucky. On the Warsaw docks, snaggers had begun reeling in smaller and smaller fish.

No one knows how many paddlefish once swam the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds, but it’s certain that the fish used to be much more numerous: In 1899, some 2.5 million pounds of paddlefish were hauled to shore. Beginning in the early 1900s, however, dams began to drown paddlefish spawning habitat and block their migration up and down the rivers. And for many years, there were no limits on taking paddlefish. “You could fish anytime you wanted, any way you wanted, and anyhow you wanted,” says U.S. Geological Survey researcher Phil Bettoli. Over the next quarter-century, the reported paddlefish harvest dropped by an estimated 70 percent.

Rob Farr, a game warden from the Missouri Department of Conservation is busy every spring checking for violations during the Paddlefish season on the Lake of the Ozarks.

Rob Farr, a game warden from the Missouri Department of Conservation is busy every spring checking for violations during the Paddlefish season on the Lake of the Ozarks.

In the 1970s and 80s, states gradually began to limit paddlefishing. On the Osage, and in other places where dams blocked natural reproduction, wildlife agencies started to boost numbers with hatchery-raised fish. But paddlefish have been driven to extinction in four states and Canada, and half of the 22 states that still have paddlefish in their waters consider them endangered or headed that way. So in 1986, after Farr busted a group of paddlefish poachers working by the glow of the highway-bridge Christmas lights (“They weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer,” he says dryly), the Missouri Department of Conservation requested help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for investigating most of the country’s interstate and international wildlife smuggling cases.

During the joint undercover investigation, Steve Nichols, a state agent, quietly moved into a trailer in Warsaw. Under an assumed name, Nichols became a regular at a local bar called the Turn it Loose. It was a tough place, he tells me: When he asked about rumors of a shooting at the bar, the owner was indignant. “He said, ‘That shooting was in the parking lot!’” Nichols recalls.

Over beers and games of pool, Nichols gradually won the trust of the bar owner and then of Bob and Neil “Spanky” DeFriese, two brothers from Tennessee who ran the local poaching ring. Nichols joined the DeFrieses on their nighttime fishing trips, where he learned to slice and empty paddlefish over the water instead of noisily wrestling them into the boat. He learned to clean paddlefish roe by massaging it gently over a drywall screen, filtering out the blood and membrane so the eggs would slip into a five-gallon bucket below. And he learned that every season, the DeFrieses were shipping hundreds of pounds of paddlefish roe out of the Kansas City airport. Much of it ended up with a well-known New York City dealer named Isidoro Garbarino, who labeled it as Russian caviar and sold it for up to $300 an ounce to airlines.

Meanwhile, Farr and other investigators spent many late nights lying on the rocky dikes that jut out from the river shores, listening for boats. The team eventually collected enough evidence to send the DeFrieses and their collaborators to federal prison. Garbarino, who was involved in caviar-smuggling operations ranging from Missouri to Iran, was also indicted, but he left the country and stayed on the lam in Italy and South America for 23 years. In 2012, he was finally intercepted in Panama, and last year, at age 69, he pled guilty to smuggling more than $10 million worth of caviar. Due to his age, he was spared jail time, but was fined and deported to his native Italy.

Paddlefish await to be weighed at the Spoonbill tournament at the Oar House. The winning fish this year was 64.2 lbs.

Paddlefish await to be weighed at the Spoonbill tournament at the Oar House. The winning fish this year was 64.2 lbs.

Why care about paddlefish? They’re not especially pretty, or tasty–though they have loyalists on both points. Their healthiest remaining populations, including those on the Osage River, are already supplemented with hatchery stock. And though their role in the freshwater ecosystem isn’t well understood, they’re thought to be a historical relic, more curiosity than key player.

They are, however, humanity’s best last chance with sturgeon and their relations.

CAVIAR BEGAN TO GAIN its modern cachet in the 1700s, when Catherine the Great began serving the ploughman’s treat to her court guests with gold and mother-of-pearl spoons. Enterprising traders began cooling barrels of caviar on ice and shipping them from southern Russia to Europe, a complicated process that made the final product fantastically expensive. The European upper and middle classes, newly fat on the Industrial Revolution and hungry for status symbols, concluded that something so costly and so beloved by Russian royalty must be worth having—and bought it whether they liked it or not.

Caviar has been said to cure influenza and impotence, and to taste of ancient seas, power, wealth, and dreams. “It’s an amazing palate experience,” says Rick Moonen, a Las-Vegas-based chef who helped draw attention to sturgeon overfishing in the early 2000s. “The first thing your mouth realizes is the saltiness—that’s the bell ringing, telling your palate to wake up—and then all of a sudden you get these fish oils popping against the roof of your mouth, all these marine nuances, almost fruity, nutty flavors. There’s a savoriness in the oil that just makes your mouth go nuts.”

The quality of the caviar is often apparent in the aftertaste, says Moonen. If paddlefish caviar is carefully prepared, it can be a delicacy. But low-quality paddlefish caviar, like the kind Steve Nichols learned to prepare with door screens and five-gallon plastic buckets, tends to taste too strongly of its origins. “The taste that lingers isn’t oceanic—it’s more like blue-green algae, a lake-water taste,” says Moonen. Still, paddlefish roe usually looks and tastes enough like its Russian cousins to fool a casual customer.

While wealthy European industrialists clamored for caviar, Russian customs regulations frustrated many traders. Inga Saffron, in her book Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, writes that in the late 1800s, a German cooper named Johannes Dieckmann tried making caviar with sturgeon roe from the nearby Elbe River. After a bit of trial and error, he had a product almost indistinguishable from fine Russian caviar. It was a hit, but the supply didn’t last: The Elbe was already polluted by nearby factories, and the stressed native sturgeon couldn’t take the fishing pressure. Between 1888 and 1900, the sturgeon catch from the Elbe dropped by half, and by the end of the 20th century they were extinct in Germany.

The sturgeon in the Elbe, like most other sturgeon and paddlefish, were primarily filter feeders, with a prominent snout and gaping, toothless mouth. All sturgeon grow very slowly, usually taking decades to reach reproductive age, but they keep growing until they die. Beluga sturgeon, the largest sturgeon and one of the largest fish in the world, can live to be more than 100 years old, and the oldest weigh more than a ton.

Walter McFall of Seneca, Kansas, swings a paddlefish up onto the cleaning table on the dock at the Oar House on the Lake of the Ozarks. He estimated the weight at between 50-60lbs. His wife, Jean, looks on. Walter has been coming here every April for the past 30 years to fish for paddlefish.

Walter McFall of Seneca, Kansas, swings a paddlefish up onto the cleaning table on the dock at the Oar House on the Lake of the Ozarks. He estimated the weight at between 50-60lbs. His wife, Jean, looks on. Walter has been coming here every April for the past 30 years to fish for paddlefish.

With this fearsome size comes vulnerability. Sturgeon aren’t particularly easy to catch, since they tend to hang quietly in the depths of rivers, but once caught they’re docile, rarely putting up a fight. And like any slow-growing, slow-maturing species, the loss of just a few individuals can send the entire species into decline. “An unfished population of sturgeon or paddlefish is like an old-growth forest,” says Stony Brook University biologist Ellen Pikitch, who has studied sturgeon around the world. “There are a lot of old trees in there—and when you take them out, it takes them a long time to regenerate.”

When the Elbe sturgeon crashed, Dieckmann, undaunted, looked for a new supply. He found it across the Atlantic.

While Europeans were serving Russian caviar with champagne and oysters, American colonists were throwing sturgeon eggs to their pigs. The fish were abundant in U.S. waters, and Indians ate both sturgeon meat and roe, but European settlers preferred shad. Sturgeon, they thought, were oily, ugly pests with a habit of tearing up fishing nets.

By the mid-1800s, though, newer immigrants were happy to buy cheap sturgeon meat (in New York, it was nicknamed “Albany beef”), and a few entrepreneurs started marketing salt-cured roe to wealthy Philadelphians. Shad fishermen, hearing of the demand, switched to sturgeon, and when Dieckmann’s descendants arrived at the mouth of the Delaware River, they found a nascent caviar boomtown. They quickly signed up suppliers, taught them the finer points of the craft, and began shipping American caviar to Hamburg. For the next twenty years, the town of Caviar, New Jersey, produced more caviar than anywhere in the world.

And then, suddenly, the rush was over. The Atlantic sturgeon, like their cousins on the Elbe, couldn’t withstand heavy fishing pressure. They simply didn’t grow quickly enough, or reproduce often enough, to replace the thousands of fish dragged out of the river each year. At first, rising caviar prices made it easy for sturgeon fishermen to ignore their dwindling catches, but by 1900, their nets were almost empty. Most abandoned the sturgeon trade, and the town of Caviar slowly rotted into the beach. Today, Atlantic sturgeon and most other North American sturgeon are threatened or endangered species.

It was the first American caviar boom, but perhaps not the last.

After the American boom ran its course, the international caviar trade swung back to Russia. When Johannes Dieckmann’s firm opened a new office in Astrakhan, on the banks of the Volga River near the Caspian Sea, in 1902, history appeared poised to repeat itself: Caspian fishermen, who had been supplying caviar to the domestic market for centuries, were complaining about shrinking sturgeon catches. With international demand rising, Dieckmann’s manager predicted, a Caspian sturgeon crash was inevitable. What he didn’t predict, however, was the Russian Revolution.

The Soviet Union, recognizing the value of the caviar trade, nationalized and regulated the Caspian fishery in the 1920s. Sturgeon populations, which had benefited from the relative lack of fishing during World War I and the revolution, began to stabilize. When the Soviet Union dammed the Volga River in the 1950s, sturgeon populations dove once again. This time, the fish were rescued not by war but by Soviet researchers, who had spent years perfecting hatchery techniques. They spawned and released millions of young sturgeon into the Caspian watershed. Over the decades that followed, a tightly controlled fishery supplied the world with high-quality—and high-priced—Russian caviar.

In the mid-1990s, “Spanky” DeFriese was in prison, and the Osage River was quiet. But the Caspian Sea was not. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Caspian fishing rights were divided among five independent states, none of which did much to rein in the caviar trade. Caviar poaching on the Caspian had always been lucrative; now it was lucrative and easy. Soon, the Russian mafia took control of the trade, and flooded the international market with illegal and often low-quality caviar. A study of the New York City caviar market in the mid-1990s found that almost 20 percent of the caviar on store shelves was mislabeled.

Sturgeon populations crashed, and this time, there was no revolution to stop the freefall. The Caspian sturgeon situation became so dire that in 1998, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulated all international sales of sturgeon and paddlefish and their products. A recent followup study of caviar sold in New York City showed that since the restrictions, mislabeling has declined to about 10 perfect. CITES, however, still considers the sturgeon family to be the most endangered group of species in the world.

With few fish left to catch, and international trade restrictions taking hold, Caspian Sea caviar became ever more rare and expensive. Yet the global hunger for caviar didn’t ease among the world’s wealthy, and it didn’t ease among the immigrants who arrived in the United States after the Soviet collapse.

IN THE 1990s, DRAWN BY jobs at a Tyson chicken-processing plant just north of Warsaw, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants began settling in central Missouri. The tiny town of Sedalia now has several Russian congregations, and when I attended a Friday-night Pentecostal service last spring, the pews were crowded with women in dark headscarves, men in suits, and girls clutching pink leatherbound Bibles. A young Russian-Ukrainian woman named Angelina, who came to Sedalia with her parents and five sisters nine years ago and now studies at the local community college, translated the service for me. Between prayers and hymns, the pastor read from Luke, telling of the miraculous catch of fish that preceded the disciple’s call to follow Jesus.

Some in the Russian and Ukrainian community couldn’t care less about caviar, but others care about it fiercely; they’ve grown up with it as a beloved indulgence and status symbol, a marker of important occasions and guests. “Those that care, care a lot,” says one of the agents who recently infiltrated local smuggling rings. “The way they talk about it, the emotion they express—it’s obvious that it’s something extremely special to them.”

Rob Farr started hearing Russian and Ukrainian spoken on the reservoir, and saw more and more snaggers take their fish home whole, leaving nothing behind. Word spread, and soon immigrants from Russia and former Soviet republics were coming to Warsaw from as far away as California, Minnesota, and Florida.

Game wardens, David Harms and Keven Polley, from the Missouri Department of Conservation asked a group of fisherman to release a paddlefish that was 1/2" under the 34" minimum size.

Game wardens, David Harms and Keven Polley, from the Missouri Department of Conservation asked a group of fisherman to release a paddlefish that was 1/2″ under the 34″ minimum size.

The new snaggers, says Farr, were in many respects just like the old ones: 10 percent are always law-abiding, 80 percent mostly so, and 10 percent never so. While they were more interested in paddlefish eggs than meat, most followed the rules, keeping the eggs only for personal consumption.

But a few years ago, an Armenian man named Bogdan Nahapetyan, then in his early 30s, moved to the area and started a construction business. He learned that there was a lot of money to be made off paddlefish roe, especially when it was labeled as Russian caviar and sold to smugglers overseas. In suburban Denver and Chicago, a few men of Russian and Armenian descent heard the same thing. And once again, Rob Farr started finding dead, disemboweled paddlefish on the reservoir shores.

On April 19, 2012, Nahapetyan called a man who federal prosecutors now refer to as J.B. “I’m calling about the fish, man,” Nahapetyan said. “This is the last week of the season, so I really need them.”

Nahapetyan called again the next day, and several times after that. “You hook me up with the good stuff, you going to have a very good business for the future,” he promised. “There is no limit, much as you get, we get them all, okay?”

A few days later, Nahapetyan and Petr Babenko, the operator of a specialty-grocery business, met J.B. in Warsaw and bought the good stuff: 80 pounds of Missouri paddlefish eggs, tenderly cleaned and salted.

The next day, Nahapetyan and Babenko packed the masses of pinhead-sized, pearl-gray eggs into coolers, hefted them into a cargo van, and left for New Jersey. When packaged and relabeled as high-quality Russian sevruga caviar, the eggs could be sold on the East Coast and overseas for more than $300,000.

THE FEDERAL CASES AGAINST Nahapetyan and the other alleged smugglers are scheduled to go to trial later this summer, so details of the undercover investigation remain scarce. (Attorneys for Nahapetyan and Babenko declined to comment for this article.) But the tactics were similar to those used in the previous bust: Federal and state wildlife officials posed as poachers with roe to sell, gaining the trust of buyers over drinks and over buckets of freshly cleaned paddlefish eggs. In 2012, the agencies rented Hooker’s Marina, the tiny dockside shack frequented by their suspects, and placed undercover agents behind the counter. That spring, the agents sold hundreds of pounds of illegal paddlefish roe to Nahapetyan and others. And then they waited.

In the spring of 2013, a local guide named Steve Brown rented Hooker’s Marina. It was a popular spot, and when he arrived at the dock on the April evening before the opening of paddlefish season, he expected to see cars lined up, filled with snaggers ready to hit the water at midnight. But the parking lot was empty.

The next day, Brown learned what his customers had already heard. The 18-month investigation had resulted in nearly 100 arrests, including federal indictments of Nahapetyan, Babenko and six others for interstate and international smuggling. One of the alleged smugglers was arrested in Washington, D.C., just before he boarded a flight to Munich with four pounds of paddlefish eggs. It was the biggest caviar-smuggling bust in U.S. history, and there may be yet more indictments to come.

“Caviar is a luxury—it’s not a protein source that anyone needs,” says Ed Grace, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who led the most recent investigation in Warsaw. “and the paddlefish is a species that’s been around since the dinosaurs. It shouldn’t go extinct just because of greed.”

Paddlefish, known as Spoonbill, in the Warsaw area, are caught by a snagging technique. It is often done by trawling in boats but these two fishermen were using long snagging rods to fish from a pier on the Lake of the Ozarks. The bridge in the background marks the boundary where fishing is legal.

Paddlefish, known as Spoonbill, in the Warsaw area, are caught by a snagging technique. It is often done by trawling in boats but these two fishermen were using long snagging rods to fish from a pier on the Lake of the Ozarks. The bridge in the background marks the boundary where fishing is legal.

When I visited Warsaw just after the busts, paddlefish snagging season seemed to be proceeding as usual. On a gray, calm morning on Lake Truman, the smooth water was edged with cedars and blooming redbuds, and dotted with flat-bottomed jon boats. Many boats were already alive with dancing rods.

Farr and fellow warden Derek Cole set to work, zigzagging from boat to boat to measure fish, check permits and chat. They talked to two young Amish men; a volunteer fireman from the nearby hamlet of Tightwad; a man teaching his determined-looking fourteen-year-old daughter how to land a paddlefish. Snaggers are limited to two fish per person per day, and most boats had at least one paddlefish tied on their gunnels by bill and tail, body hanging in the water to keep it cool. It started to rain, and brightly-colored slickers bloomed in every boat. No one headed for the docks.

No matter their native language, the snaggers were all innocent. “No sir, no one’s tried to buy eggs,” one told Farr. “And if they did, I can assure you they wouldn’t get ‘em.”

“Whatever you’re looking for,” said another, “I didn’t do it!”

Hooker’s Marina was a lonely place. “Business sucks,” said Brown, shaking his head at his bad luck. A trio of Moldovans from Minnesota was snagging from the dock, and a young man named Yuri, armed with a long, heavy-gauge rod, prepared to try his luck. “Just here for the fish,” he said, as he sent his weighted snag sailing into the reservoir. “No eggs. Just the fish.”

Once again, Warsaw is quiet. But nobody expects it to stay that way.

The sturgeon species of the Caspian Sea won’t recover for decades, if ever; the Chinese sturgeon is critically endangered. The Atlantic sturgeon, once numerous enough to fuel an international caviar boom, is also endangered. The pallid sturgeon, which shares the Mississippi with the paddlefish, is one of the most endangered species in the United States. The relatively numerous white sturgeon, native to the Pacific Northwest, is also the target of organized international smuggling. The venerable and majestically odd sturgeon family is disappearing, and the paddlefish is poised to follow it.

The Truman dam, which separates Truman Lake and the Lake of the Ozarks, has had the largest impact on paddlefish populations by preventing fish from swimming upstream to spawning grounds. On this day Truman Lake had an elevation of 706 feet and the Lake of the Ozarks 654 feet. The Missouri Dept. of Conservation stocks the lake every fall with paddlefish to keep the populations viable for fishermen during the spring season which lasts about five weeks.

The Truman dam, which separates Truman Lake and the Lake of the Ozarks, has had the largest impact on paddlefish populations by preventing fish from swimming upstream to spawning grounds. On this day Truman Lake had an elevation of 706 feet and the Lake of the Ozarks 654 feet. The Missouri Dept. of Conservation stocks the lake every fall with paddlefish to keep the populations viable for fishermen during the spring season which lasts about five weeks.

One way to protect the paddlefish from our palate may be, ironically, to openly market its caviar. The state of Oklahoma has opened a facility that prepares and sells caviar from legally-caught paddlefish. Last year, the plant made $2 million for the state’s wildlife programs, and state officials hope that the competition will dent the illegal market. (One of the facility’s egg-processing contractors, Billy Wishard, served five years’ probation for paddlefish poaching in the early 1990s.) The town of Glendive, Montana, now sells its own brand of paddlefish caviar, and in several states, licensed commercial fishermen and women catch paddlefish for roe. Russian caviar still holds far more international cachet, but perhaps paddlefish caviar, like once-scorned delicacies such as lobster and monkfish, will gain respect on its own terms.

Farmed caviar is also a growing business, especially in the Pacific Northwest and California, where the white sturgeon is used in aquaculture. “I think American caviar, white sturgeon in particular, is as good in its distinctive way as [Caspian] osetra caviar,” says chef Moonen. “People are still devoted to Caspian Sea caviar, but that reminds me of when people thought that only good wine came from France. People said, ‘Ha ha, don’t even bring your stupid bottles from California to the competitions,’ and then pretty soon they were saying ‘Oh! You won!’” Farming techniques are advancing; a German researcher recently announced a new method of collecting eggs without killing the fish.

But experts on the international caviar market say that farmed sturgeon alone won’t fully satisfy demand, at least not yet. Most customers still believe that wild caviar is better: that it tastes better, keeps better, or just ineffably is better.

No matter its source, caviar’s lure is undeniable—and enduring. While building rapport with suspects, the undercover agents in the most recent Warsaw investigation ate plenty of paddlefish caviar, most often spread on bread and served with a shot of vodka. At the beginning of the investigation, says one agent, he couldn’t stand its odd, buttery flavor. By the time the team made its arrests, eighteen months later, he was craving it.

This article first appeared at Medium.com. Photos by Dennis Chamberlin. Infograpnic by Arlene Birt. Here is more information on paddlefish and a recipe by Barton Seaver.

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