Eyes of the caviar world, and poachers, are on Missouri

03/14/2013 5:56 PM

05/16/2014 9:30 PM

A sweeping series of criminal cases announced Thursday has just enough international intrigue to make one wonder: Is that Missouri

caviar sitting on James Bond’s toast?

Federal and state authorities said they have arrested, charged or cited more than 100 Missouri residents and people living in eight other states as part of a two-year investigation into the illegal commercial trafficking of paddlefish and their eggs for use as caviar.

The eggs, also known as roe, were destined for the U.S. and international caviar market, Missouri Conservation Department officials said.

With the beluga sturgeon becoming more elusive because of overfishing in the Caspian Sea, the eyes of the caviar world have turned to Missouri as a potential source.

The problem? Poaching game fish to support a commercial operation is illegal.

“Poaching is really stealing a resource meant for the citizens of Missouri and others who come here to fish,” said Nick Laposha, Kansas City protection regional supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “The commercialization is the problem.”

Commercial paddlefish snagging is permitted only with proper permits on the Mississippi River, where the fish are considered less desirable than in the state’s interior.

The announcement of charges in the caviar caper came just a day before the opening of Misssouri’s 2013 paddlefish season, which runs through April 30. Paddlefish, the state’s official aquatic animal, can grow to seven feet in length, weigh more than 160 pounds and live more than 30 years.

And a female carrying 20 pounds of eggs can produce $4,000 worth of caviar even at black market prices, according to the conservation department. At retail, it would be worth more than $11,000.

Fish worth that much can get a lot of attention, even beyond the thousands of paddlefish snaggers expected to descend on the Osage River near Warsaw, Mo., and other sites beginning today.

Two years ago, Warsaw residents began reporting potential poaching to the state’s Operation Game Thief, said Larry Yamnitz, the conservation department’s protection chief.

The investigation resulted in four unrelated federal cases against eight men.

Bogdan Nahapetyan, 34, caught authorities’ attention when he allegedly began offering to buy as much paddlefish roe as his sources could muster, federal charges stated.

“There is no limit,” Nahapetyan allegedly told a seller in Warsaw, according to a conversation reported in federal charges. “Much as you get. We get them all, OK?”

Prosecutors alleged that Nahapetyan, an Armenian citizen who allegedly overstayed his visitor visa by 17 years, purportedly worked with Petr Babenko, a 42-year-old specialty grocery owner from Vineland, N.J.

A defendant in a separate federal case, Fedor Pakhnyuk, 39, of Hinsdale, Ill., allegedly traveled to Warsaw in 2011 and 2012 to buy paddlefish eggs. Prosecutors alleged that he offered to show two Warsaw residents how to sell the fish in the illicit caviar markets in Chicago if they would allow him to process all of their paddlefish eggs.

And a week after Andrew Praskovsky, of Erie, Colo., paid $750 for seven paddlefish in Warsaw on April 16, 2012, authorities spotted him in Washington, D.C., boarding a United Airlines flight bound for Europe. Picking through his checked luggage, authorities purportedly found more than four pounds of paddlefish eggs packed in plastic containers, according to court records.

Praskovsky, 40, allegedly had not applied for the proper export permits.

Prosecutors also charged four other Colorado men — Arkadiy Lvovskiy, 51, and Felix Baravik, 48, both of Aurora, Dmitri Elitchev, 46, of Centennial, and Artour Magdessian, 46, of Lone Tree — with similar federal wildlife violations.

All those charged in the federal cases, except for Babenko, have been arrested, said a spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys office.

A conservation department spokesmen said more than 125 state and federal agents began making arrests, delivering charges and issuing citations to the remaining state defendants Wednesday.

Given the pressure that commercial poaching can put on the state’s paddlefish population, Laposha said, conservation agents will be monitoring this year’s season closely.

“It’s pretty special to Missouri and we’re going to watch it,” he said.

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