The high value of caviar is driving poachers to an inventive way to cash in on giant sturgeon in the Columbia River:
They lash live fish with ropes to the riverbank for safe-keeping until black-market buyers can be located. Enforcement officials have also found sturgeon carcasses floating in the river with their bellies slit open to harvest their eggs.
Catching the culprits often requires night patrols and undercover stings, they say.
“Sturgeon poaching is not something that’s done in the middle of the day when it’s sunny,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Jeff Wickersham. “You're going to have people that ... don't want to be seen. So, it's very hard to detect.”
Detecting those poachers has become a bigger part of wildlife police work in Washington and Oregon. Global sturgeon populations are collapsing – most notably in Russia, where caviar is known as black gold. That’s fueling a market for illegal caviar and driving poachers to the Columbia River.
“The hottest commodity from an oversize fish is not the flesh, though that has a market value for sure. It’s the caviar,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of enforcement for WDFW. “We know as long as that resource is around, it’s going to attract poachers and traffickers.”
Fishing rules restrict people from taking sturgeon over 5 feet long to protect the breeding fish, which are few and far between. It takes female sturgeon about 20 years to start producing eggs, making them crucial to the species’ future. But their eggs are also a delicacy, prized as some of the world’s finest caviar.
Top-shelf sturgeon caviar can sell for up to $200 an ounce in stores and restaurants. The biggest female sturgeon can carry up to 100 pounds of eggs. That means the eggs from one sturgeon could be ultimately be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For the last several years, managers have canceled sturgeon fishing seasonsbelow the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam because sturgeon numbers are so low. But it's unclear how much sturgeon poaching is to blame. Sturgeon have been hampered by dams, and now they're on the menu for the Columbia’s growing number of sea lions.
Sturgeon have been around 200 million years — before dinosaurs roamed the earth. They even look like dinosaurs. Their sides and back are armored with rows of spikes biologists call scutes. “They’re the coolest-looking fish that swims in the river,” said Tucker Jones, biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They look prehistoric. They’ve probably been in the Columbia River as long as there’s been a Columbia River.”
Sturgeon can live 100 years and grow to more than 20 feet long, but they’re slow-growing. According to Jones, only 1 percent of sturgeon survive the 15-25 years it takes for them to start reproducing.
“Once they reach maturity, those fish are really important because you have a fish that’s capable of sustaining a population for a long time,” he said. “The older they get, the more eggs they can produce.”
WDFW officer Dan Bolton said poachers make up a small percentage of the people fishing for sturgeon. But they have the potential to do a lot of damage.
"Sturgeon to me are like an old-growth tree,” he said. “They're not just a fish that, well, you take one and you can grow another one. I mean these sturgeon are slow, slow-growing and need to be valued."
Wickersham said officers patrolling the Columbia are noticing that people simply aren’t catching as many sturgeon as they used to.
“We see people saying, ‘Hey, we’re not seeing fish anymore. We used to catch fish here all the time. All we’re finding is shakers or the undersized. We’re not seeing oversized fish anymore,’” Wickersham said.
But how could the cops be missing people poaching sturgeon that are more than 5 feet long?
On his patrol boat, Mitch Hicks, chief of enforcement for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, points out a stretch of river where he’s found oversize sturgeon tied to the shore.
“So, we have a high cliff here,” he explains. “We have some deep water. It’s secluded. There’s really no street lights. There’s no neighbors or residential areas or anything.”
Hicks said he and his officers routinely run their patrol boat close to the shore, looking for lines, cables anything that would look out of place and have tension on it.
"Lift the line out of the water and sometimes, you know, you find a fish,” he said.
Officers have also tried another tactic to catch sturgeon poachers: Going undercover and pretending to be their customers.
In the mid-1990s, a poaching ring based in Vancouver, Washington, was caught after harvesting 1.65 tons for caviar from around 2,000 Columbia River sturgeon. The estimated value of the caviar was $2 million. Another ring with ties to the Columbia was busted in 2003.
Officials suspected the collapse of the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea had made the Columbia a bigger target for poachers. So, in 2006 and 2007 wildlife enforcement officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon State Police and WDFW organized a sting to catch poachers and traffickers on the Columbia.
They called it Operation Broodstock because it was designed to catch people poaching breeding fish for their eggs. Undercover officers bought illegal fish from 33 suspects altogether. Nearly all of their attempts were successful.
“In my mind, that’s high odds that trafficking is out of control on the Columbia River,” Cenci said. “What we learned is that sturgeon poaching was alive and well. The market was already established.”
Officers found people selling sturgeon that were both bigger and smaller than the legal size. Many of the suspects were tribal fishers.
“On the harvesting end, we had tribal members involved, but we had an Eastern European marketplace that was providing the incentive to poach,” Cenci said. “Regardless of the culture, the incentive is the same, and it’s money. It’s all about money.”
Though many of Operation Broodstock’s suspects were tribal fishers, tribal leaders were left out of the operation.
Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, said that was wrong.
“They continued to gather information and used it as a way to try to embarrass the tribes or make their enforcement programs look like they’re not doing a good job,” he said. “So, I told them to their face I thought their behavior was really quite disgusting because if they really cared about the natural resources, they would have come and talked to us. We work very, very hard to restore these fish runs.”
Lumley said state enforcement officials have a history of harassing tribal fishers, and he thinks they unfairly target the tribes – maybe because they want more authority over tribal fisheries and maybe because of “institutional racism that still exists over there.”
Cenci said his agency is not out to get the tribes or get in the way of their treaty right to fish.
“The states do have to overcome a less-than-stellar history with respect to the treaty right,” he said. “To characterize our dedication in protecting natural resources as institutional racism, that’s offensive to me. Our officers are very respectful of the treaty right, and we provide a lot of training to our officers so they understand the history, they understand the sensitivities, they understand how emotionally charged that all this can be.”
At the Russian restaurant Kachka in Portland, customers pay $84 for just half an ounce of the best sturgeon caviar on the menu. It comes from farms to protect wild stocks. Owner Bonnie Morales uses a scale in the middle of the restaurant to serve it, so customers can watch as she measures out a small spoonful of these tiny black eggs.
"We want to be very transparent with making sure people know they're getting exactly what they're paying for,” she said. “Every little egg matters."
Morales said there’s something inherently indulgent about sturgeon caviar – regardless of the price.
"It’s rich. It’s buttery. When it’s really fresh it has a nice brininess to it rather than a fishiness,” she aid. “It’s a really delicious and complex flavor.”
She said she can see why people would be poaching the white sturgeon found in the Columbia River.
"White sturgeon is becoming more and more of a premium item, and so there's a lot of respect for it now,” she said. “And they're really easy to catch. They're like big submarines."
Biologists say the sturgeon populations aren’t in dire straits, and their numbers could still rebound to healthy levels. But Cenci said the stakes are still high for enforcement officials.
“For a species to make it 200 million years only to be poached to alarmingly low levels would be a crying shame,” he said. “We’re going to do our level best to try to protect that resource. I think that’s something everybody wants.”