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Fish egg thefts rise as caviar prices soar

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TULSA, Okla. — Wildlife officials fear lucrative prices for American caviar may be enticing poachers to illegally harvest and sell eggs from the protected paddlefish in the Midwest.

On one night, suspected poachers cut open more than 40 fish in search of eggs before tossing the carcasses aside, said Brek Henry, the game warden in Rogers County.

Paddlefish eggs go for $30 to $80 a pound with female fish producing as much as 10 pounds each. A dwindling population of Caspian Sea sturgeon, a favorite source of caviar, has boosted paddlefish egg prices and popularity because the two have similar color and texture.

Poachers sell the eggs to middlemen, who in turn sell them to caviar companies, Henry said.

Federal and state authorities recently seized about 80 pounds of fish eggs and equipment in a suspected poaching operation in the Arkansas River basin area.

Authorities in Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma said they fear that higher caviar prices have contributed to a rise in poaching.

"I couldn't testify in the witness stand that that's going on, but I'd bet my bottom dollar it is," said Lt. Carroll Henneke, an investigator for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Numbers of paddlefish have shrunk drastically in the past century.

Dams have eliminated traditional spawning sites, interrupted natural spawning migrations and destroyed backwater areas for nursing and feeding, said Kim Graham, an official with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The paddlefish is considered an endangered species in several of the two dozen states where the fish has its habitat. About half of those states ban sport or commercial fishing for the species.

Many states prohibit sportsmen from selling wild fish and fish parts. Under federal law, anglers who transport the fish across state lines for sale face fines up to $250,000 for individuals, $500,000 for organizations and prison time.

WEB SITE: www.fws.gov