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Three caught in illegal paddlefish operation

by Jonathan Jain, [email protected] | July 10, 2021 at 4:05 a.m. | Updated July 10, 2021 at 10:42 a.m.

Missouri Department of Conservation agents busted an illegal paddlefish operation in Morgan County after a tip from a confidential informant and 13 hours of surveillance. Three individuals were found with five dead paddlefish and 75 pounds of roe, which is worth almost $6,000 on the black market.

The informant told Conservation Agent Mike Jones about the Russian-speaking suspects and the make of their vehicle, which had South Carolina plates. Jones passed the information to Conservation Agent Tyler Brown, who organized agents for the surveillance and takedown of the suspects.

Brown said it appeared the suspects intended to possess and transport the extracted paddlefish eggs, which is illegal in Missouri.

"The issue with extracted paddlefish eggs is the black market value," Brown said. "We don't want to put a monetary value on our wildlife, and we don't want people simply cutting the fish open and taking the eggs out just to be able to sell them later on down the road."

Agents were set up for surveillance in Morgan County at the Lake of the Ozarks before 8 a.m. April 30, the last day of the paddlefish fishing season. The individuals went on the water around 1 p.m., and they made several trips back to their truck during the day. Shortly after 11 p.m., they began driving away and were pulled over by the agents.

The agents found five dead paddlefish, but Brown said the 75 pounds of roe came from other paddlefish. With the large amount of roe, Jones said it is likely the three individuals went over the daily limit of two paddlefish per person.

Their penalty could be up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine since they committed Class A misdemeanors, according to Jones.

"I would say that - more than likely - it will be a pretty stern fine," Jones said.

Jones said illegal paddlefish operations are more common than people think. In the early 2010s, an estimated $50,000 in paddlefish roe was found during "Operation Roadhouse." The undercover operation was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation in Warsaw, Missouri, which calls itself the paddlefish capital of the world.

Brown said the recent roe-harvesting bust was a successful effort by Missouri Department of Conservation agents tasked with protecting the fish, wildlife and forestry resources throughout the state.

"Our jobs as conservation agents is to enforce science-based laws in order to preserve and conserve these populations for future generations," Brown said. "That's our primary goal: resource law enforcement to protect the resources."

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