"Caviar's Last Stand"

"How the international caviar underground ended up in the Ozarks"

"Every spring, game warden Rob Farr patrols the reservoirs of the Osage River in central Missouri, near the town of Warsaw. A tall, bluff, gray-haired man in his late 50s, he’s worked as a Missouri Department of Conservation warden for 34 years, and he gives the rare impression of a man who thoroughly enjoys his job. “It’s just satisfying to catch someone who needs caught,” he says. Most of the violations he encounters on the water are minor: fishermen or women with expired fishing permits, boats carrying one fish too many or too short.

But as Farr pilots his motorboat across Lake Truman and the Lake of the Ozarks, he’s also looking for more sinister business. He tells me that years ago, people started finding stinking piles of dead fish, bellies slit and emptied, at the ends of Warsaw’s dirt roads, and he knew that what he’d long expected had finally come to pass. The centuries-long persecution of an ancient family of fish—a chase that had ricocheted from Russia to the Atlantic coast of North America to Kazhakstan and Iran—had entered its endgame. Caviar poaching had arrived in the Ozarks.

The most peculiar species in the Osage is the American paddlefish, which looks less like a fish than a prehistoric marine reptile. Nicknamed spoonbills, paddlefish have flattened snouts a third as long as their bodies, and the ungainly package of snout and body can be as much as seven feet long. Adults have large, toothless mouths and little interest in bait. The best way to catch one is to drag a hefty hook along the bottom of a river, pulling it back and forth—sometimes for hours—until hook snags fish and a silvery monster can be hauled to the surface. It is not, to put it politely, a game of skill, but aficionados say it’s addictive. “It’s like playing a one-armed bandit,” says Bryan Heinen, a popular local paddlefish guide who travels to Warsaw from his home in Nebraska each spring."

Michelle Nijhuis reports for Medium July 28, 2014.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014