Earlier this spring, on rivers and lakes throughout the vast Mississippi Basin, armies of fishermen hit the water bearing surfcasting rods and giant treble hooks—tackle normally reserved for heavy-duty ocean fishing—in pursuit of a living dinosaur.
Their prehistoric quarry: the American paddlefish, a 300 million-year-old, spatula-snouted behemoth that grows up to seven feet in length and weighs up to 160 pounds. Though anglers value the paddlefish’s firm, white meat, the creature is most famous for what’s inside its belly: grapelike clusters of roe, which, once processed into caviar, commonly retail for $35 per ounce. Escalating demand for paddlefish eggs has turned the species into a target for international poaching operations—but in Oklahoma, caviar might just prove the fish’s salvation.
Traditionally, the most valuable caviar comes from a cousin to the paddlefish, the beluga sturgeon that swim the rivers of Eastern Europe. Overfishing and habitat destruction, however, have reduced sturgeon populations by 90 percent over the last few decades. With sturgeon depleted, dealers—and poachers—have turned their attention to the paddlefish, whose eggs are a decent surrogate for beluga caviar. Midwestern states like Missouri and Oklahoma have become hotbeds for gangs of Eastern European poachers who, under cover of darkness, slit open the fishes’ bellies, grab the roe for later sale, and dump the spent carcasses back into the deep. Such grisly transgressions not only defy state laws that restrict anglers to two paddlefish per day and prohibit the commercial sale of eggs, they also violate the Lacey Act, the federal law that makes it a crime to transport poached wildlife across state lines.
The logic that underpins the Paddlefish Research Center—that the regulated sale of cheap animal parts can sabotage black markets—is catching on for other species. Some scientists and conservationists have called for the creation of rhino farms, in which horns would be non-lethally harvested and sold. Crocodiles, prized for their skins, are already being raised in registered farms around the world.
As poaching has ramped up paddlefish populations, already imperiled by dams and other forms of habitat destruction, have declined—and law enforcement agencies have intensified their own efforts. Last year, a probe led by state and federal officials resulted in more than 100 arrests or citations, including one suspect who was nabbed at Dulles International Airport with four pounds of roe stowed in his luggage. Another investigation called Operation Red Snag seized over $60,000 of illegal caviar. “We’re out there patrolling 24/7 while the paddlefish are spawning,” District Captain Jeff Brown, the Oklahoma game warden who helped spearhead Red Snag, told me. “It’s all hands on deck.”
While poachers grab the headlines, the vast majority of paddlefish anglers are actually law-abiding “snaggers”—fishermen who use their heavy tackle to foul-hook the beasts in their sides or fins. (Despite their size, paddlefish feed exclusively on microscopic plankton, so snagging is the only way to catch them.) In Miami, Oklahoma, snaggers can then bring their catch to the Paddlefish Research Center, which fillets the fish for free—up to 400 per day—and returns the vacuum-packed meat to the fishermen. In exchange, the Center, run by the state’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, asks only for the eggs, which it processes and sells, mostly to Japanese dealers. In 2013, that caviar brought in $1.5 million.
The state then spends that money on boats, night-vision goggles, flyovers, and other crime-fighting tools that, combined with the busts, have helped deter poachers. (Law enforcement officers also use caviar from the Center in stings.) “Last year illegal commercial activities were almost nil,” Brown says. “Some people are going to do it regardless, but it was night and day.”
WHEN BIOLOGIST BRENT GORDON helped found the Paddlefish Research Center in 2008, science, not law enforcement, was foremost on his mind. To glean certain bits of crucial information, like the population’s age structure, Gordon needed to study dead paddlefish—and fishermen, he realized, were a ready source of research specimens. Offering to fillet the unwieldy paddlefish was the perfect carrot to get snaggers to bring in their catch for scrutiny. By examining paddlefish carcasses, Gordon has learned that the population in Grand Lake, Oklahoma’s largest fishery, is mostly comprised of older fish, and could be headed toward a natural crash. This year the state used that information to cut allowable harvest by a third.
Yet the program’s most important achievement may be its impact on the caviar trade. According to Gordon, drawing on testimony from undercover agents, the Center has sold enough caviar to flood the market and dampen illegal sales. Furthermore, because the Center uses a sterile facility to process its roe, it’s able to achieve a level of quality control that dealers prize and that poachers can’t match. “Not only can (dealers) buy legal caviar for cheaper than on the black market,” Gordon says, “they’re also getting a consistent product.”
While that tactic might sound like Econ 101, it's far from typical poacher-fighting practice: Wildlife agencies tend to destroy contraband animal parts. Last November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent six tons of ivory through an industrial rock crusher, and Belgium recently followed suit. Prince William has called on Buckingham Palace to destroy its entire ivory collection. Honduras has obliterated shark fins, and Vietnam may pulverize its stockpiles of ivory, rhino horns, and tiger bones.
These high-profile demolitions are meant to convey a zero-tolerance approach to wildlife trafficking. But do they work? In the Guardian last year, Daniel Stiles, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group, wrote that rather than deterring poachers, the ivory crush sent a different, unintended message: “Ivory is scarce and with stockpile destruction is getting scarcer.... Poachers and those paying them now have increased incentive to go out and kill more elephants.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that selling tusks, a la paddlefish caviar, is likely to succeed. For one thing, while six tons of ivory may sound dramatic, it probably wouldn’t be enough to dent a rapacious black market that poaches 30,000 elephants every year. And unlike the state of Oklahoma, which obtains its paddlefish eggs from lawful fishermen, the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t legally sell its confiscated tusks.
Still, the logic that underpins the Paddlefish Research Center—that the regulated sale of cheap animal parts can sabotage black markets—is catching on for other species. Some scientists and conservationists have called for the creation of rhino farms, in which horns would be non-lethally harvested and sold. Crocodiles, prized for their skins, are already being raised in registered farms around the world. (On the other hand, farming hasn’t done a thing to protect wild tigers.)
The Paddlefish Research Center is no stranger to controversy itself: Legitimate paddlefish ranchers (yes, they exist) complain that by inundating the market with caviar, the Center is undercutting their business. Gordon is sympathetic to the argument, but the fate of aquaculturists can’t be his primary concern. “The reality is there aren’t many of these fish left,” he says. “Our job is to manage wild paddlefish in the state of Oklahoma, and we’re doing it well.”