Keeping Paddlefish in the Black

Recently, Steve Kinder and Cornelia Kinder were convicted of trafficking in and falsely labeling illegally harvested paddlefish in violation of the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is a federal statute that criminalizes the act of transporting or selling fish across state lines with knowledge that the fish, or fish parts, were harvested in violation of any state’s law. It also criminalizes the act of submitting a false record, account, or label for fish, or fish parts, to be exported or sold. While this may seem like an unusual crime, the black market trade in paddlefish (polydon spathula) is a growing industry. Paddlefish are related to sturgeon and paddlefish roe, which is black, is a very close substitute for sturgeon roe in making caviar. As a result of overfishing in the Caspian Sea, beluga sturgeon has become nearly extinct and “beluga black”, considered by many to be the finest caviar, has vanished. In 2006, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) suspended all caviar trade from the Caspian and Black Seas. In 2010, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially declared the beluga sturgeon critically endangered.

In the face of this dearth of black caviar, caviar manufacturers have turned to paddlefish. However, the boom in shipping paddlefish roe has been in the illegal markets. Rather than sell paddlefish as paddlefish, exporters often sell the paddlefish eggs labeled as beluga sturgeon roe. Aside from these Lacey Act sanctions from false labeling, trade in paddlefish itself is regulated at both the state and federal level. In Ohio, where the mentioned violators of the Lacey Act were prosecuted, the commercial fishing of paddlefish is prohibited. Ohio also prohibits the use or possession of gill nets, which are used to catch paddlefish. Federal law covers trade in paddlefish through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA codifies the regulations of CITES, which lists paddlefish as an Appendix II species. An Appendix II species can only be exported from the United States if it is accompanied by a valid permit issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Under CITES, an exporter must demonstrate to the Fish & Wildlife Service, (1) that the item to be exported was legally acquired, and (2) that the harvest associated with the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

With the wild increase in this market over the last ten years and no sign of a return for the beluga sturgeon, these non-detriment findings will be harder and harder to make. In 2001, approximately 5,216 pounds of caviar made from paddlefish roe was exported from the United States. In 2007, approximately 23,840 pounds of this caviar was exported. In addition, 524,000 live eggs were exported in 2001 versus 1,465,000 live eggs in 2007. This massive rise in export has been fueled by international demand for caviar. This illicit, and often highly lucrative trade, has even allegedly drawn Russian mafia members into the rural United States to harvest paddlefish. In May 2011, Anatoly Natekin and Fedor Natekin were arrested in Oklahoma attempting to cross state lines with over 300 pounds of paddlefish. Although the paddlefish population is abundant in many areas, illegal trade must be controlled or increasing demand could spell trouble for managing paddlefish as a valuable and sustainable fishery.

Written by Meagan Buckley, GIELR Staff