The March 16-17 edition of the Sedalia Democrat included a story by Emily Jarrett regarding the culmination of a multi-year investigation of a paddlefish poaching operation centered near Warsaw.
According to the story, either citations or arrest warrants had already been issued for “more than 100 people.”
The article reported that an important phase of the investigation included a 2-year undercover operation by both the Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents.
I did a lot of undercover work during the eight years I served as a special agent for two agencies within the U.S. Department of Justice, and you can take my word for it that holding a shared investigation together for that long — especially in a small town — is phenomenal.
My curiosity thoroughly aroused, I set out to get the whole story. I wasn’t able to learn as much about how either the poachers or the agents operated, but there were good reasons for law enforcement’s wall of silence. Additional warrants and possibly even indictments are pending, and I completely understand the need for my normally cooperative sources’ reticence.
But I’m confident I was able to draw several valid conclusions by reading between the lines of all of the publicly available information.
For example, the fact that the undercover work more or less coincided with the legal snagging season coupled with the large number of defendants from nine states, including Missouri, leads me to believe that most of the paddlefish were obtained by snagging methods that were — or at least appeared to be — legal in and of themselves.
Snagging became poaching after the fact, when either the whole paddlefish or its eggs were sold. I have no doubt that most of the people involved in this case knew exactly what they were doing when they were doing it, but just in case someone offers you money for a paddlefish you’ve snagged legally, be advised that it is illegal to buy, sell or offer to sell either a whole paddlefish or its eggs.
That will draw a citation, and, if you know or should have known that the paddlefish’s eggs will be transported beyond Missouri’s border — and, if you’re offered well over a thousand dollars for your catch, you should be — you’re now in violation of the federal Lacey Act.
A U.S. Department of Justice press release reports that eight named individuals have already been indicted for violations of the Lacey Act. The indictments — there are four — allege that at least some of the paddlefish eggs obtained by this ring were processed into caviar before they left the Warsaw area.
The original information that launched this investigation came from private citizens who reported what they thought was suspicious activity to the MDC through Operation Game Thief. That’s not unusual. Most large-scale poaching operations and many routine violations are revealed through the willingness of people like you and me to get involved.
Commercial poaching is always a blight on the outdoors, but this case is especially disastrous. No estimate of the total number of paddlefish killed by this band of thieves has been released, but it has to be in the hundreds or perhaps even thousands.
Paddlefish cannot spawn naturally in the Osage River, so the MDC maintains the fishery by stocking. Although the majority of the cost of this program is paid by hunters and fishermen, everyone who shops in the state contributes through the Design for Conservation sales tax.
Law abiding snaggers also pay a tremendous price in stolen time. It takes decades for a paddlefish to top the 60-pound mark. Or to put it another way, the paddlefish that are stocked this year to replace the fish the poachers killed won’t reach their full trophy potential during most of today’s snaggers’ lifetimes.