Eight men have been indicted as part of a joint U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Missouri Department of Conservation investigation into the 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 yesterday that the men had been charged in four separate indictments for acts that occurred in 2011 and 2012.
The eight men are charged with violations of the Lacey Act, a federal statute which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of state law.
In this case, Missouri state law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs that have been removed or extracted from a paddlefish carcass; prohibits the sale or purchase, or offer of sale or purchase, of paddlefish eggs; and restricts the purchase of whole paddlefish.
“Illegal wildlife trafficking doesn’t just involve rhinos, elephants and other foreign species under siege; it’s a threat to U.S. resources as well,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “We are working with our state and federal partners to ensure that the American paddlefish doesn’t end up on the federal Endangered Species List because of the black market caviar trade.”
The American paddlefish (Polydon spathula), also called the Mississippi paddlefish or the “spoonbill,” is a large, ancient, long-lived species of freshwater fish found primarily in the Mississippi River drainage system. It gets its name from its characteristic long, flattened snout, which can be up to one third its total length and is covered in electroreceptors that scientists believe may be used to find its plankton food.
Paddlefish were once common in waters throughout the Midwest, but overfishing around the turn of the 20th century led to severe population declines. The construction of river dams further affected the species, which has now disappeared from significant portions of its range. Today, 11 out of 22 states within the species remaining range now list the paddlefish as endangered, threatened or a species of special concern.
Cooperative conservation efforts by FWS and other federal agencies, states, and universities are helping protect the paddlefish. However, with the depletion of European and Asian sturgeon populations due to overharvesting, American paddlefish have experienced increased pressure to meet the demand for caviar. In 1992, due to an increased demand for paddlefish caviar and continued decreases in the population, the American paddlefish was afforded international protection by being listed as a species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
All other species of sturgeon and paddlefish were added to the CITES list in 1998. CITES is an international treaty between 178 nations, which seeks to protect rare and declining species by restricting international trade.
One of the men in this case had attempted to export, without a permit, paddlefish eggs in his checked luggage on an international flight from Washington, DC, in violation of CITES.
If convicted, the individual defendants face a maximum penalty of five years each 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.