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Sturgeon poaching and black market caviar: a case study


This paper documents a recent United States Federal prosecution of members of a poaching ring that sold caviar derived from illegally taken Columbia River white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus. Experts estimated that over 2000 adult sturgeon were killed in the process of illegally harvesting the more than 1500 kg of caviar involved in the case. Case studies of illegal activities related to exploitation of natural resources are rare. These crimes are difficult to discover and prosecute, for secrecy is essential, and by the time the facts are publicly available, irreparable environmental damage may have already been done. Sturgeons and paddle-fishes have long life spans but take many years to reach reproductive maturity; they reproduce infrequently and rely upon large, often urban rivers for their spawning migrations. These basic biological characteristics render these fishes especially susceptible to illegal exploitation, particularly when stocks have already been damaged by overfishing, dam construction or pollution (as has the Columbia River population of white sturgeon). Given the often exorbitant prices for sturgeon and paddlefish caviar, and the relative ease of capturing these fishes during their spawning migrations, persons may be tempted to circumvent state and federal regulations designed to protect acipenseriforms. Additionally, those involved in the distribution and sale of caviar can be motivated to fraudulently mislabel the product; for instance, in this case, white sturgeon caviar was marked as beluga caviar and sold at approximately five times the normal price of white sturgeon caviar. Despite the clear evidence of an environmental crime, the scale of the abuse, and the convictions, sentencing was light, a discouraging sign for those who hope to limit such destructive crimes in the future.

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Cohen, A. Sturgeon poaching and black market caviar: a case study. Environmental Biology of Fishes 48, 423–426 (1997).

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  • Acipenser transmontanus
  • Columbia River
  • Lacey Act
  • beluga caviar
  • illegal harvesting
  • environmental crimes