Missouri conservation agents say they have nailed caviar crooks in Ozarks | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri conservation agents say they have nailed caviar crooks in Ozarks

Mar 21, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Caviar was the food of czars.

Caviar, and the money to be made from selling it, were behind a two-year undercover investigation and sting by conservation agencies. The operation ended on March 14 with more than 100 citations and arrests of suspects from Missouri. Eight men of eastern European descent, seven from out-of-state, were named in federal indictments for interstate trafficking of poached wildlife products. The wildlife in question is the paddlefish, native to Missouri and surrounding states.

About 85 agents of the Missouri Department of Conservation worked with about 40 agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the cooperation of local law enforcement from Benton County, Mo., and conservation agents from 16 other states.

Poached paddlefish offered promises of profit

Paddlefish, the state fish of Missouri, produces roe (eggs) that can be processed into caviar of a quality second only to that of the increasingly rare sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. Paddlefish caviar sells at $25-$35 per ounce.

There is only one hitch. By Missouri law the roe of paddlefish caught by sport fishermen cannot be sold. The roe must be consumed where they are extracted from the fish, usually in the home of the fisherman. Businesses can be licensed to sell the roe from fish caught on the Mississippi River, but commercial fishing for these fish is barred on rivers such as the Osage and James in western Missouri. Paddlefish roe from these spring-fed rivers is considered superior to Mississippi roe.

The lure of huge profits proved too tempting to a large ring of poachers and their associates who operated near Warsaw, Mo.

Warsaw calls itself the “Paddlefish Capital of the World.” The town is on the Osage River, downstream from Truman Lake Dam. Because paddlefish swim upriver to spawn in the spring, but cannot reach their spawning grounds because of the dam, the waters near Warsaw are prime paddlefish "snagging" grounds.

Paddlefish are huge fish, growing up to seven feet in length, and weighing up to 160 pounds.  A female can have an egg mass of about 20 pounds, up to 25 percent of her body weight.

Larry Yamnitz is the chief law enforcement officer of the conservation department's Protection Division. He says paddlefish caviar sells for about $13 an ounce on the black market. A large pregnant female could have $4,000 worth of roe at black market prices. Retail, that roe might be worth $11,000.

Paddlefish, or spoonbills as they are sometimes known, are not endangered in Missouri. Since they can no longer spawn productively in the lakes created by dams, conservation department hatcheries stock the fisheries annually with about 45,000 foot-long fingerlings. Conservation tax dollars maintain the once-native species for sport fishermen, who must abide by fish and wildlife laws. Legal harvest size is 34 inches, and only two paddlefish can be taken a day.

How the story unfolded

A few years ago, conservation department agents started getting reports that paddlefish snaggers were being approached by men offering to buy their female catch. The agency also received anonymous tips through its hotline. 

“People know you are not supposed to sell sport fish from that river,” Yamnitz said. “According to the North American Model of Conservation, everybody owns the critters.” The conservation department decided to investigate the reports using undercover tactics.

Since its creation in 1975, a special unit goes after illegal commercialization of wildlife. This unit consists of highly trained investigators, all of whom are full-time conservation agents.

The evidence uncovered by the special unit led to four indictments.

Bogdan Nahapetyan, an Armenian citizen who had been residing in or near Lake Ozark, Mo. for 17 years, allegedly approached two individuals about buying as many paddlefish eggs as they could supply. According to the indictment he said, “You hook me up with the good stuff, you going to have a very good business for the future. You know this guy, I’m telling you, he’s a close friend of mine.” His “close friend,” Petr Babenko of Vineland, N.J., operated a specialty grocery. Babenko traveled to Lake Ozark where he took the eggs that Nahapetyan had purchased and transported them by car to New Jersey.

According to the indictment, Andrew Alexander Praskovsky of Erie, Colo., traveled to Missouri to meet with two individuals to arrange purchase of eggs from seven paddlefish.  As he was about to take off from Dulles airport on what he said was his annual trip to Russia, law enforcement officials discovered 43 ounces of fresh paddlefish eggs and 25 ounces of dried paddlefish eggs in his luggage.

In another case, Fedor Pakhnyuk is alleged to have removed eggs from three purchased paddlefish carcasses, processed them into caviar, and transported them to Illinois. He offered to show sellers in Warsaw, Mo. the “markets” in Chicago, Ill. in return for a continuing business arrangement.

Finally, four other defendants from Colorado are charged with similar violations. Arkady Lvovoskiy, Dmitri Elitchev, Artour Magdesian and Felix Baravik are alleged to have visited Warsaw, Mo. for two snagging seasons. A federal indictment states that they purchased and processed large quantities of eggs and also caught fish beyond the legal limit when fishing themselves. The eggs were driven back to Colorado.

If the defendants are convicted, they each face a maximum of five years in prison, fines of $250,000 a count (two or three counts an indictment), and forfeiture of all property involved in the crime. 

More indictments are expected.

Yamnitz credits well-intentioned citizens with helping agents break the case.  “The backbone of our operation is citizen involvement,” he said. He added that Missouri is fortunate to have a citizenry that put conservation in a constitutional amendment and established a separate tax for maintaining our natural resources in a sustainable way. Missouri is one of only three states with a dedicated conservation sales tax.

He also makes clear that the Department of Conservation is dedicated to enforcing its resource-related laws. Missouri conservation agents are commissioned as deputy federal game wardens by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All agents have completed a four-year college degree in a field such as fisheries, forestry or criminal justice. Then, as licensed peace officers, they must complete six months’ training at their own academy, learning law enforcement as well as fish and wildlife management.

Paddlefish season just began

Sport fishing for paddlefish began on March 15 and continues until April 30.

As many as 16,000 legal snaggers will try for one of those trophy-size fish in Missouri’s waters. This year, willing sport anglers will be asked to collection information to learn more about paddlefish biology and learn to manage their populations better. Aside from weight, sex, and length they may be asked to supply a sample of the ovaries or eggs, or a section of the jawbone, for age determination. 

As always, agents will be alert to signs of poaching.

A bit about paddlefish

This 400 million-year-old species has a skeleton of cartilage rather than bone, and lacks scales. It has no teeth and sustains itself through filter feeding. It swims slowly with its mouth open to catch small crustaceans and insects.

Paddlefish can live for 30 years or more. It takes 6-8 years to reach the legal harvest size of 34 inches. Females are sexually mature at 8-10 years and spawn every 2-3 years. Males mature earlier and spawn annually. 

Paddlefish, native to the Missouri, Mississippi and smaller rivers such as the Osage, require long lengths of free-flowing water. Like salmon, they swim upriver to spawn on gravel beds.

(Watch video of paddlefish.)

Net-fished commercially, they are sold as spoonbill catfish or white catfish.