FERN reporter Michelle Nijhuis dives into the murky waters of the paddlefish caviar smuggling trade in our latest story, “Caviar’s Last Stand,” published today online at Medium.com. An accompanying infographic, “The Curious History of Caviar in America,” explaining the plight of the paddlefish, can be found on our website here.
Detailing the long history and obsession with caviar, Nijhuis explains that with sturgeon populations crashing worldwide, those seeking to profit from the sale of caviar have turned to an American relative, paddlefish. Growing up to seven-feet in length and sporting a long snout, many of the fish are found in Missouri, where paddlefish “snagging”—or dragging for the fish—is legal within limits and for personal consumption. But the illegal smuggling trade has ended up plying these waters too.
“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,” writes Nijhuis.
The report details an 18-month investigation by state and federal authorities on the Osage River in Missouri that resulted in nearly 100 arrests last year, including federal indictments of eight people for interstate and international smuggling. The defendants are still awaiting trial. In 1986, a similar $10 million smuggling operation was also broken up, though it took two decades to catch the ringleader, who had fled to South America.
“Caviar is a luxury—it’s not a protein source that anyone needs,” Ed Grace, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who led the most recent investigation in Warsaw, Missouri, tells Nijhuis. “And the paddlefish is a species that’s been around since the dinosaurs. It shouldn’t go extinct just because of greed.”
Paddlefish have already 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. In Oklahoma, Montana, the Pacific Northwest, California, and elsewhere, paddlefish aquaculture has offered an alternative to the wild-caught fish eggs.
Although the role of the 75-million year old species in the freshwater ecosystem isn’t well understood, Nijhuis explains that we should care about paddlefish, because, “They are…humanity’s best last chance with sturgeon and their relations.”
In addition to the print story at Medium, Chef Barton Seaver provides FERN’s readers a recipe for paddlefish roe here on this resource page. At our site, the full story features a sidebar that looks into sustainable paddlefish roe and features photos by our Director of Photography, Dennis Chamberlin.