Warsaw, Missouri—the self-proclaimed paddlefish capital of the world—is now the unlikely epicenter of a black market caviar hub as Caspian sturgeon has become critically endangered.
Photo via Flickr user John Penny
"You hook me up with the good stuff, you going to have a very good business for the future," promised Bogdan Nahapetyan. He didn't realize that he was speaking to an undercover federal investigator.
And what was the good stuff he was referring to? Paddlefish roe, of course.
Nahapetyan was charged with trafficking and is now awaiting his February trial date. He is one of eight men that were charged in a bizarre string of arrests during "Operation Roadhouse," an undercover investigation led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that looked more like a high-stakes human trafficking bust than one dealing with illegal fish poaching in Missouri.
I'm a criminologist specializing in organized crime, but I also dream a lot about food in my spare time. When I came across this strange story, I was intrigued that all eight men had decidedly Slavic names. Rural Missouri isn't exactly cosmopolitan.
Since this wasn't explained in any of the press releases, I tracked down Larry Yamnitz, the Protection Division Chief of the Missouri Department of Conservation and one of the chief investigators of "Operation Roadhouse," who told me more about what prompted the investigation.
"We got wind that folks were looking at buying paddlefish roe from sport fishers, which is illegal," said Yamnitz. "We set up an undercover snagging operation to lure them out."
Apart from the eight arrests, the two-year investigation culminated in an additional 100 state citations relating to illegal and unlicensed paddlefish exploitation.
The aptly named town of Warsaw, Missouri—the self-proclaimed paddlefish capital of the world—is now the unlikely epicenter of a black market as Caspian sturgeon has become critically endangered.
"Paddlefish poaching is very popular in these parts. This isn't new," said Joe Jerek, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We've been catching poachers since the 1980s. What's new is that most of them clearly aren't from around these parts," he said.
Of the eight men arrested, seven resided out of state, and all were originally from Eastern Europe or the Caucasus; Nahapetyan had allegedly been living in the country illegally on an expired visa.
In the Caucasus, caviar trafficking and organized crime go hand in hand. To find out if there is a potential link between that and what's been happening in Missouri, I spoke to Yuliya Zabyelina, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who recently published an analysis of organized crime connections to paddlefish poaching. She told me that when we assemble lists of endangered species, we create à la carte menus for daring entrepreneurs and people keen on chasing authenticity.
"For over two decades, caviar has been directly linked to organized crime," she said. "Unregulated exploitation led to the sturgeon's near extinction and a moratorium being placed on fishing leading those involved to turn their sights elsewhere."
What makes American paddlefish so valuable is its ancestral link to sturgeon, the saltwater fish traditionally harvested for its roe. Paddlefish roe can be processed into caviar—a delicacy created by preserving roe in special salts—that's eerily similar in size and texture to that of the prized beluga sturgeon native to the Caspian Sea.
The Osage River running through Warsaw is a hot spot for poachers because spawning fish are blocked by Truman dam, increasing the chance of snagging an egg-laden female. Missouri regulations on catching paddlefish are also more lax than in surrounding states.
Though paddlefish roe isn't worth much in its natural state, this changes dramatically when it is processed into caviar, selling at about $13 an ounce on the black market and retailing at three times that price. A large female paddlefish can carry upwards of 20 pounds of roe, with a potential value starting at $4,000. This value skyrockets if the caviar is intentionally mislabelled; 3.5 ounces of Russian Ossetra caviar, for example, retails for $200.
Yamnitz told me that, during the investigation, it wasn't uncommon to find empty tins labelled as Ossetra, Beluga, and other types of more expensive caviar. "It's not hard to put two and two together," he said.
Greg Conover, a representative of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, confirmed that the majority of poached paddlefish roe is indeed intended for export. Traffickers repackage paddlefish roe as a higher-grade, more expensive form of caviar and then export it into Asian or European markets or sell it back into the US, reaping huge profits along the way.
When I spoke to Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, a professor from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, she pointed out that exploiting paddlefish in this way is indicative of sophistication and organization by people who have the connections needed to get the final product to market and get a good price for it.
Though "Operation Roadhouse" put a damper on illegal activity in the region, officials aren't so certain it will last.
"Whatever [organized crime members] can make money on, that's what they make money on—whether it is trafficking illegally in wildlife or selling drugs," Yamnitz said. "This isn't the last we'll see of this."