After a two-year investigation by undercover state and federal officials, eight men busted in a sleepy Missouri town will go on trial in March 2015 for their role in a high-stakes fish-roe trafficking ring believed to have ties to eastern European organized crime.
According to an article from The Star, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation set up a covert operation nicknamed “Operation Roadhouse,” near Warsaw, Missouri—an area affectionately known as “The Roadhouse” and the self-proclaimed paddlefish capital of the world—to infiltrate the ring. Agents reportedly set up a faux paddlefish snagging operation that targeted buyers interested in purchasing whole fish and/or eggs to transport across state lines or out of the country, in violation of the Lacey Act, to sell the processed roe as caviar on the black market.
Yuliya Zabyelina, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, explained to The Star that when the Soviet Union collapsed, organized crime took advantage and began illegally importing high-grade caviar extracted from Caspian Sturgeon. The profits helped fund other criminal initiatives like human trafficking. When the sturgeon became endangered and a fishing moratorium was placed in the Northern Caspian, crime groups began illegally importing paddlefish roe because, once processed, it’s similar in size, color, and texture to the sturgeon’s. Paddlefish caviar has since become a hot black market commodity, where 100 grams of roe typically fetch $40 and can retail for three times as much. Given that a female paddlefish carries approximately nine kilograms of roe, the average bootlegged fish is worth about $3,600. What’s more, a sly poacher can increase his paycheck by mislabeling or misrepresenting paddlefish caviar as higher-grade beluga Russian caviar.