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Indiana Conservation Officers Bust International Caviar Ring

April 23, 2007

Most would not view the Hoosier homeland as the base of an illegal six-figure-per-year seafood operation but that's what Indiana Conservation Officers found on the tributaries of the Ohio River, in Vevay.

Undercover officers posing as illegal fishermen for 1 ½ years infiltrated the ring, the members of which were illegally harvesting and selling "caviar" from the river's paddlefish.

Twelve arrests were made today on a combined 39 felony charges. A charge of "illegal sale of a wild animal" was included in each individual's list of charges. Officers also confiscated four boats, three vehicles, processing equipment, fishing equipment and records. Illicit drugs and large sums of cash were also taken from some of those arrested.

Individuals charged included Albert Collins, Darrin Turner, Jerry Turner, Jonathon Turner, Keith Hodge, Larry "Pete" Barnes, Lou Rebholz, Lisa Mullins, Roger Kinman, Willard Napier, Gary McGinnis and Timothy Micah Sanger. All are southern Indiana residents.

Technically, caviar is sturgeon eggs; however, there is a shortage of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, the main source for the culinary delicacy. That has created a lucrative worldwide market for paddlefish eggs, which have a similar taste, look and consistency to the real thing.

One paddlefish can yield $600 to $800 in eggs. Annual income for illegal harvesting is $100,000 to $400,000 per year per fisherman.

Paddlefish can be legally harvested by commercial fishermen in the main stream of the Ohio but all tributaries, where much of the fishing is taking place, is protected because of the heavy concentrations of spawning fish there.

Violators use snag hooks and nets to catch paddlefish, which are found mostly in the large river systems of the Mississippi River Basin. The fish are long-lived (males, 7-9 years; females, 10-12) and reach large sizes. The Indiana State Record weighed 106 pounds, 4 ounces.

Paddlefish are not believed to be endangered; however, due to their elusive nature, researching them is difficult. Paddlefish numbers are believed to be dropping, although the fish frequently occur in large groups, especially below dams, and are highly mobile. This gives the impression that they are abundant when in fact, they may not be, according to Bill James, state chief of fisheries.

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