Fisheries Conservation photo

After a two-year investigation by undercover state and federal officials, eight men busted in a sleepy Missouri town will go on trial in March 2015 for their role in a high-stakes fish-roe trafficking ring believed to have ties to eastern European organized crime.

According to an article from The Star, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation set up a covert operation nicknamed “Operation Roadhouse,” near Warsaw, Missouri—an area affectionately known as “The Roadhouse” and the self-proclaimed paddlefish capital of the world—to infiltrate the ring. Agents reportedly set up a faux paddlefish snagging operation that targeted buyers interested in purchasing whole fish and/or eggs to transport across state lines or out of the country, in violation of the Lacey Act, to sell the processed roe as caviar on the black market.

Yuliya Zabyelina, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, explained to The Star that when the Soviet Union collapsed, organized crime took advantage and began illegally importing high-grade caviar extracted from Caspian Sturgeon. The profits helped fund other criminal initiatives like human trafficking. When the sturgeon became endangered and a fishing moratorium was placed in the Northern Caspian, crime groups began illegally importing paddlefish roe because, once processed, it’s similar in size, color, and texture to the sturgeon’s. Paddlefish caviar has since become a hot black market commodity, where 100 grams of roe typically fetch $40 and can retail for three times as much. Given that a female paddlefish carries approximately nine kilograms of roe, the average bootlegged fish is worth about $3,600. What’s more, a sly poacher can increase his paycheck by mislabeling or misrepresenting paddlefish caviar as higher-grade beluga Russian caviar.

Poachers flock to Missouri’s Roadhouse region because paddlefish, also known as “spoonbills,” are easy to find—a dam on the Osage River blocks spawning fish from migrating upstream—and snag. Anglers don’t put bait out to entice a paddlefish, they snag them with a weighted hook. While Missouri allows snagging, anglers are only allowed to harvest two fish per day and keep the roe for personal use—a liberal regulation compared to neighboring states, which keep the roe from harvested fish.

Dr. Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, a professor of marine biodiversity and conservation, discovered the intentionally mislabeled paddlefish roe through genetic sampling. She is confident that it points to a level of sophistication and organization beyond the average poacher. “It’s being done by people who have thought this out, who are able to get this to the market, and who are able to get a good price for it,” she says. The lead investigator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, Larry Yamnitz, agrees: “Wildlife trafficking is a very lucrative business that organized crime groups are utilizing to gain funds. I definitely think any time you have high numbers of illegal trafficking in wildlife that there are ties to some type of organized crime.”