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DRIFTWOOD OUTDOORS: Going undercover

Operation nets paddlefish poachers

Law-enforcement agents with the Missouri Department of Conservation and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service deserve a pat on the back for taking down a major paddlefish poaching ring this past week.

More than 100 suspects involved in the undercover case were issued citations. Eight individuals were indicted for federal crimes involving trafficking paddlefish and their eggs, which are sold as caviar.

“The national and international popularity of Missouri paddlefish eggs as a source of caviar has grown dramatically in recent years,” MDC protection chief Larry Yamnitz said. “This is a result of European sources of caviar having declined from overfishing of the Caspian Sea’s once plentiful and lucrative beluga sturgeon, another species of fish known for its caviar.”

Criminals find unique ways to line their pockets. Few could imagine an international organized crime ring revolving around harvested eggs from Missouri paddlefish. Once you hear the prices some pay for the eggs, though, it becomes easier to understand.

“Caviar prices in illegal or black markets also vary,” Yamnitz said. “A common blackmarket 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.”

There are a lot of fish and game laws to follow. Sometimes people make honest mistakes and break one of those laws. It’s understandable.

And then sometimes a person will cheat a bit on purpose. They know what they are doing is wrong. Hopefully, they are caught, taught a lesson and never do it again.

But then there are the hardened poachers who time and time again reap the resources for personal gain with no concern for the species or the sportsmen who pursue them.

We can only hope these criminals are caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. So, Arkadiy Lvovskiy, Dmitri Elitchev, Artour Magdessian, Felix Baravik, Petr Babenko, Bogdan Nahapetyan, Fedor Pakhnyuk and Andrew Praskovsky, here’s hoping they throw the book at you.

“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.”

An estimated 16,000 Missourians pursue paddlefish each year. Anyone who poaches a paddlefish is stealing from us. These prehistoric fish are a unique and obviously valuable resource.

If you buy fishing and hunting licenses, then you are supporting fish and wildlife. You should take it personally when someone cheats. They are stealing from you and every other person who enjoys our state’s fish and wildlife resources. MDC acknowledges this investigation began with tips from the public about illegal activities.

“Individuals from the Warsaw area first alerted us to potential paddlefish poaching in the area,” Yamnitz said. “We are grateful to them, and encourage anyone spotting suspected illegal fishing or hunting activity to contact their local conservation agent, or call Operation Game Thief at 1-800-392-1111, 24 hours a day. Callers may remain anonymous and rewards are available for information leading to arrests.”

If you are ever suspicious of a potential poaching violation, or if you know of someone who is a violator, please do the right thing and notify an MDC agent or your local police department. The future of fishing and hunting depends on the stewardship of our resources. We cannot allow poachers to deplete what so many of us work in conjunction to protect.

See you down the trail …

Brandon Butler is an outdoors columnist for the News Tribune. He can be reached at outdoors@newstribune.com.

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