The American paddlefish (Polydon spathula) is Missouri's official aquatic animal. Also known as the Mississippi paddlefish or spoonbill, the freshwater fish can grow up to seven-feet long and can weigh more than 160 pounds.
Although once common in waters throughout the Midwest, the global decline of caviar sources like sturgeon has led to an increased demand for paddlefish caviar, which has led to over-fishing and a subsequent decline in population.
Warsaw is known as the "Paddlefish Capital of the World," owing largely to a popular section of the Osage River that is blocked upstream by Truman Dam. This block keeps spawning paddlefish in the area, upping anglers' chances of making a catch.
This concentration of female paddlefish also makes the spot desirable for poachers, who collect the eggs for national and international caviar markets.
"The national and international popularity of Missouri paddlefish eggs as a source of caviar has grown dramatically in recent years," said MDC Protection Chief Larry Yamnitz. "This is a result of European sources of caviar having declined from overfishing of the Caspian Seaâ??s once plentiful and lucrative beluga sturgeon, another species of fish known for its caviar."
A large female paddlefish can produce about 20 pounds or more of eggs, and a common retail price right now is about $35 per ounce.
"Caviar prices in illegal or black markets also vary," Yamnitz said. "A common black-market price is about $13 an ounce. Therefore, a single large female paddlefish with about 20 pounds of eggs is carrying about $4,000 worth of potential caviar for black market sales."
The Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked together during the spring of 2011 and spring 2012 paddlefish seasons (March 15th through April 30th) to investigate the interstate and international trafficking.
"Sport anglers may only catch two paddlefish daily and the eggs may not be bought, sold or offered for sale," Yamnitz said. "Extracted paddlefish eggs may not be possessed on waters of the state or adjacent banks and may not be transported. Paddlefish and their eggs may be commercially harvested only from the Mississippi River."
The Missouri Wildlife Code prohibits the purchase, resale and transport of paddlefish and their eggs.
"Missouri law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs which have been removed or extracted from a paddlefish carcass. Missouri law also prohibits the sale or purchase, or offer of sale or purchase, of paddlefish eggs. There are also several restrictions on the purchase and possession of whole paddlefish in Missouri," according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
The paddlefish poaching and trafficking are also federal crimes because of the Lacey Act, which makes it illegal to poach game in one state with the purpose of selling the bounty in another state and prohibits the transportation of illegally captured or prohibited wildlife across state lines.
The Department of Justice explained in a news release that "...the Lacey Act makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase fish that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any state, or to attempt to do so. Such conduct constitutes a felony crime if the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct involving the purchase or sale, offer to purchase or sell or intent to purchase or sell, fish with a market value in excess of $350, knowing that the fish were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of, or in a manner unlawful under, a law or regulation of any state."
Bogdan Nahapetyan, 33, of Lake Ozark was charged with conspiring to violate the Lacey Act and with trafficking in paddlefish and their eggs. The indictment says he and a New Jersey man, identified as 42-year-old Petr Babenko, traveled to Warsaw between March and April 2012 and illegally purchased paddlefish, then processed their eggs into caviar and transported it to New Jersey.
The seven others facing federal charges are Babenko, 51-year-old Arkadiy Lvovskiy of Aurora, Colo., 46-year-old Dmitri Elitchev of Centennial, Colo., 46-year-old Artour Magdessian of Lone Tree, Colo., 48-year-old Felix Baravik of Aurora, Colo., 39-year-old Fedor Pakhnyuk of Hinsdale, Ill., and 40-year-old Andrew Praskovsky of Erie, Colo.
If convicted, each faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and a $250,000 fine per count, as well as forfeiture of any vehicles used while committing the crimes.
The MDC annually stocks about 45,000 hatchery-produced paddlefish fingerlings, each 10 to 12 inches long, in Table Rock Lake, Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks. For more information about paddlefish, visit www.mdc.mo.gov.