April 4, 2013

MDC, Federal Agents Snag Major Paddlefish Poaching Operation



Local conservation agents were among the officers involved in a huge operation that resulted in more than 100 citations and arrests following a two-year investigation into illegal taking and selling of paddlefish and paddlefish eggs. Photo courtesy of MDC

Known as the "Paddlefish Capital of the World," Warsaw, Missouri, is a favorite area for many of Missouri's approximately 16,000 sport paddlefish snaggers because of its location along the Osage River.

Agents with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), including Scotland County agent Gary Miller, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) discovered that the Warsaw area is also a favorite location for paddlefish poachers.

A cooperative undercover investigation by the two agencies recently resulted in more than 100 suspects from Missouri and eight other states being issued citations and/or arrest warrants for state and federal crimes related to paddlefish poaching.

Missouri's official state aquatic animal, paddlefish are an ancient species. Also called spoonbills, they can grow up to seven-feet long and weigh 160 pounds or more. Paddlefish are valued as a sport fish for both their size, and for eating. Paddlefish are also valued for their eggs, or roe, which are eaten as caviar.

The section of the Osage River running along Warsaw in Benton County is a paddlefish hot spot because it is blocked upstream by Truman Dam. When spawning paddlefish reach the dam, their route is blocked and their numbers increase dramatically. This dramatically increases sport anglers' chances of snagging the big fish with a random jerk on a fishing line equipped with large hooks.

This concentration of female paddlefish laden with eggs also makes Warsaw a prime location for paddlefish poachers to get the fish eggs for national and international illegal 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 Sea's once plentiful and lucrative beluga sturgeon, another species of fish known for its caviar."

Caviar is a delicacy created by preserving fish roe in special salts. According to MDC, about 20 pounds of eggs or more can be harvested from a large, pregnant female paddlefish. Retail prices for paddlefish caviar vary. A current common retail price 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."

Over the course of March 13 and 14, approximately 85 conservation agents of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), 40 special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USWFS), and wildlife officers from other states contacted more than 100 suspects in Missouri and eight other states to issue citations, execute arrest warrants, conduct interviews and gather additional information regarding a paddlefish-poaching investigation.

The effort included eight individuals indicted for federal crimes involving the illegal trafficking of paddlefish and their eggs for use as caviar. Other states involved were Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

The arrests and citations were the result of a multi-year joint undercover investigation by MDC conservation agents and special agents of the USFWS involving the illegal commercialization of Missouri paddlefish and their eggs for national and international caviar markets. The undercover investigation ran during the spring 2011 and spring 2012 paddlefish seasons, March 15 through April 30. It was based out of Warsaw, Missouri. Additional MDC conservation agents and federal agents supported the undercover operation.

"Sport anglers may only catch two paddlefish daily and the eggs may not be bought, sold or offered for sale," Yamnitz explained. "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."

He added that through the undercover operation, agents were able to identify suspects engaged in wildlife violations involving the illegal purchase, resale and transport of paddlefish and their eggs, document other violations of the Missouri Wildlife Code in addition to the core investigation, and determine that paddlefish eggs harvested in Missouri were being illegally transported out of the state for redistribution.

Federal crimes tied to the poaching involve violations of the Lacey Act. The Act makes it a federal crime 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.

MDC and the USFWS worked with the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, the Benton County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Department of Justice on the investigation.

Identification of suspects in violation of state wildlife charges is pending legal filings. Copies of the federal indictments may be obtained from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Kansas City.

The 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," said Yamnitz. "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."

Paddlefish are highly valued by both sport anglers and commercial fishermen. Through Missouri Department of Conservation stocking efforts at three large reservoirs, Missouri offers some of the best paddlefish snagging fisheries in the U.S. The reservoirs are at Lake of the Ozarks and its tributaries, Harry S. Truman Reservoir and its tributaries, and Table Rock Lake and its tributaries, primarily the James River arm.

Without MDC's stocking of these fisheries, and other paddlefish management practices, paddlefish numbers would sharply decline in Missouri's reservoirs, reducing opportunities for sport snaggers.

In the past, paddlefish were naturally abundant in Missouri, but their numbers declined because of channelization, damming, impoundments and other river modifications. These modifications have greatly diminished the natural habitat paddlefish need to reproduce in the wild.

Today, paddlefish in Missouri must be stocked. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks about 45,000 hatchery-produced 10-12-inch-long paddlefish fingerlings each year in Missouri's three main paddlefish locations: Table Rock Lake, Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks.

Paddlefish can grow to a length of about seven feet, weigh up to 160 pounds or more, and live 30 years or more. Females grow larger and heavier than males. It takes about 6-8 years for a paddlefish to reach legal harvest size (34-inches) in Missouri's large reservoirs. Female paddlefish reach sexual maturity at 8-10 years and spawn every 2-3 years. Male paddlefish reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years and spawn annually. The egg masses of female paddlefish can be up to 25 percent of their body weight, with a large female paddlefish carrying about 20 pounds of eggs, or roe.

Paddlefish live mostly in open waters of big rivers and were historically found in the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage rivers, along with other streams. Paddlefish spend most of the year dispersed throughout large reservoirs and rivers until warm spring rains increase flows and raise water temperatures, which prompts the big fish to swim upstream on their spawning run. Spawning runs occur in late spring at times of increased water flow. It is triggered by a combination of daylight, water temperature, and water flow.

For more information about paddlefish, visit www.mdc.mo.gov.

Eight Indicted for Trafficking of Paddlefish 'Caviar'



WASHINGTON -Eight individuals face federal charges stemming from a joint U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Missouri Department of Conservation investigation of interstate and international trafficking in paddlefish "caviar," the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri announced. Arkadiy Lvovskiy, Dmitri Elitchev, Artour Magdessian, Felix Baravik, Petr Babenko , Bogdan Nahapetyan, Fedor Pakhnyuk, and Andrew Praskovsky have been charged in four, separate indictments in the Western District of Missouri for acts that occurred in 2011 and 2012.

The American paddlefish (Polydon spathula), also called the Mississippi paddlefish or the "spoonbill," is a freshwater fish that is primarily found in the Mississippi River drainage system. Paddlefish eggs are marketed as caviar. Paddlefish were once common in waters throughout the Midwest. However, the global decline in other caviar sources, such as sturgeon, has led to an increased demand for paddlefish caviar. This increased demand has led to over-fishing of paddlefish, and consequent decline of the paddlefish population.

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.

Among other things, 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.

Arkadiy Lvovskiy, 51, of Aurora, Colorado, Dmitri Elitchev, 46, of Centennial, Colorado, Artour Magdessian, 46, of Lone Tree, Colorado, and Felix Baravik, 48, of Aurora, Colorado, were charged with conspiring with each other, and others, to violate the Lacey Act, and with trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act. The indictment alleges that in the spring of 2011 and 2012, the defendants traveled to Warsaw,

Missouri, where they engaged in multiple, illegal purchases of paddlefish and processed the eggs from those paddlefish into caviar. After processing the paddlefish eggs into caviar, the defendants transported the caviar from Missouri to Colorado. The indictment further alleges that, during the interstate transportation, the defendants engaged in counter-surveillance efforts in order to avoid being detected.

Petr Babenko, 42, of Vineland, New Jersey, and Bogdan Nahapetyan, 33, of Lake Ozark, Missouri, were charged with conspiring with each other and other individuals to violate the Lacey Act, and with trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act. The indictment alleges that between March and April 2012, the defendants traveled to Warsaw, Missouri, where they engaged in multiple, illegal purchases of paddlefish and processed the eggs from those paddlefish into caviar. After processing the paddlefish eggs into caviar, they transported the caviar from Missouri to New Jersey.

Fedor Pakhnyuk, 39, of Hinsdale, Illinois, is charged with two counts of trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act. According to the indictment, in the spring of 2011 and 2012 Pakhnyuk traveled from Illinois to Missouri for the purpose of obtaining paddlefish eggs. The indictment alleges that Pakhnyuk procured paddlefish eggs by purchasing them, and by performing processing services for other persons in exchange for a share of the processed eggs. After processing the paddlefish eggs into caviar, Pakhnyuk transported the caviar from Missouri to Illinois. The indictment alleges that Pakhnyuk also attempted to form an enterprise with other individuals that would market processed paddlefish caviar at markets in Chicago, Illinois.

Andrew Praskovsky, 40, of Erie, Colorado, is charged with two counts of trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act. According to the indictment, in March and April 2012, Praskovsky twice traveled to Warsaw, Missouri, for the purpose of purchasing paddlefish. After processing the paddlefish eggs into caviar, Pakhnyuk transported the caviar from Missouri to Kansas. The indictment alleges that, in April 2012, Praskovsky attempted to export some of the paddlefish eggs in checked luggage on an international flight departing from Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC. The paddlefish eggs were seized at Dulles, as paddlefish eggs may only be exported if they are accompanied by a valid permit issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

If convicted, the individual defendants face a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and a $250,000 fine per count, as well as forfeiture of any vehicles that were used during the commission of the crimes.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation, with assistance by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys James B. Nelson and Adam C. Cullman of the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section and Supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence E. Miller of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri.

An indictment is a formal accusation and is not proof of guilt. Defendants are presumed innocent until and unless they are found guilty.

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