Two men from Kentucky are facing felony charges that include prison time and tens of thousands of dollars in fines after crossing state lines to poach a protected fish species. According to a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Northern District of Mississippi on Monday, James Lawrence “Lance” Freeman, 27, of Eddyville, and Marcus Harrell, 34, of Murray, traveled to Mississippi on multiple occasions throughout the fall of 2018 and into the winter of 2019 to poach paddlefish from Moon Lake in Coahoma County—a body of water that is closed to all paddlefish fishing. Assistant United States District Attorney Robert Mims told Field & Stream that Freeman works as a part-time professional bass fisherman.

After poaching the paddlefish, Freeman and Harrell reportedly returned to Kentucky to market and sell the valuable paddlefish roe—which is often used for caviar in lieu of sturgeon eggs. They told buyers that the fish had been caught in the Ohio River or other places where the harvest of paddlefish is legal, the press release states.

The sentencing comes after a lengthy investigation by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP). “I am extremely proud of these Officers for their hard work and dedication they put forth in bringing these violators to justice,” said Col. Jerry Carter of MDWFP. “Thanks for the joint effort by all agencies State and Federal that were involved, it truly sends a message that unlawful acts such as this will not be tolerated in our state and that we will use all the manpower and equipment available to protect our natural resources.”

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Both Harrell and Freeman were charged with violating the Lacey Act. One of the oldest wildlife protection statutes in the United States, it prohibits the transportation of illegally harvested game across state lines, making it a federal offense. “The Office of Law Enforcement takes violations of the Lacey Act seriously,” USFWS Office of Law Enforcement Assistant Director Edward Grace said. “The investigation [of] the two defendants who were involved in the unlawful harvest and dealing of paddlefish roe is no exception. We will continue to work closely with our state partners to conduct these important joint investigations.” 

For his part in the paddlefish poaching scheme, Freeman was sentenced to six months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. He’s also facing a fine of $20,000 and a five-year ban on all commercial and recreational fishing activity. He is scheduled to report to prison on November 28. Harrell was sentenced to five years probation and fined $7,500 back in July. Also a commercial fisherman, according the press release, he “was banned from all fishing in the State of Mississippi for a period of five years and further banned from harvesting fish roe of any species in any state for a period of five years.”

The American paddlefish, or spoonbill, is the last paddlefish species left on earth. Its closest relative, the Chinese paddlefish, was officially declared extinct in July 2022. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), paddlefish can reach lengths of 7 feet and weigh 160 pounds or more. Because they rely on free-flowing rivers with oxbows and backwaters for feeding, as well as gravel bars for spawning, paddlefish numbers have declined in the face of stream channelization, levee construction, and drainage of bottomlands, the MDC says.