Undercover Operation Busts Illegal Caviar Trafficking in Missouri

Categories: Animals, Crime

Photos courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation
Fishing for paddlefish is legal. Harvesting their eggs and selling them as caviar is not
As international demand for caviar causes overfishing of the Caspian Sea's once plentiful beluga sturgeon, fishermen are flocking to Missouri to illegally harvest from the next big name in caviar: the Mississippi paddlefish.

An ancient cousin to the sturgeon, paddlefish are plentiful in Table Rock Lake, Truman Lake and the Lake of the Ozarks, and a female paddlefish can carry as much as twenty pounds of eggs at a time.

"A common black-market price is about $13 an ounce," says Missouri Department of Conservation protection chief Larry Yamnitz. "Therefore, a single large female paddlefish with about twenty pounds of eggs is carrying about $4,000 worth of potential caviar for black-market sales."

Those valuable fish eggs are attracting interstate and international traffickers to Missouri, according to the department of conservation.

See previous RFT coverage: Black Market Caviar Ring Busted in Missouri; Investigation Snags 100+ Poachers

Paddlefish harvested during the undercover operation.
Felix Baravik, 49, of Aurora, Colorado, pleaded guilty last week to trafficking paddlefish after he was busted in an undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation. He and seven others were indicted on federal trafficking charges in 2013.

In his guilty plea, Baravik admitted traveling from Colorado to Missouri in April 2012, where he met with state and federal agents posing as fishermen The conservation department says Baravik and his co-conspirators arranged to buy female paddlefish from the covert agents.

See also: Something Fishy - A bubbling demand for Missouri caviar spawns cutthroat competition.

Later that month, Baravik decided to go catch paddlefish for himself. On a fishing trip with the undercover agents, he caught more than the maximum allowed number of paddlefish, removed the eggs and processed them into caviar. He then transported that caviar and the paddlefish to Colorado.

Baravik and federal prosecutors are jointly recommending a sentence of three years' probation, including six months of house arrest, a $5,000 fine and 500 hours of community service. He would not be allowed to fish anywhere in the world during probation.

Jars of paddlefish caviar.
The same investigation also netted another man who has pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking paddlefish and their eggs.

Bogdan Nahapetyan, 35, of Lake Ozark, ordered 80 pounds of paddlefish eggs and five female paddlefish for $4,625 in April 2012, even while the undercover agents told him numerous times that buying the fish is illegal. Before he had even finished loading the fish and caviar into a van, Nahapetyan placed another order for more, according to the conservation department.

Nahapetyan faces a year in federal prison without parole and a fine of up to $100,000.

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at Lindsay.Toler@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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Erica Whitney
Erica Whitney

Stefanie you want some illegal caviar from the river? Too bad.

Rick Jones
Rick Jones

If we would shoot a few of these pieces of shit. They would think twice about killing off another specie. They do it at Kentucky Lake and everywhere else Spoonbill and Paddlefish live. Again, man's greed destroying the earth.

Gary Reinhardt
Gary Reinhardt

Yeah but Missouri fisherman are notorious for fishing illegally They are always getting caught in Kentucky for snagging out of their boats

James Thomas Beckring Jr.
James Thomas Beckring Jr.

Caught a 3 footer a few years ago while cat fishing. Threw it right back. What an ugly fish.

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