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What could Wisconsin's caviar trading scandal mean for world's largest wild sturgeon population?

Spoon with black caviar
Wikimedia Commons
Pearl spoon holding black caviar.

The caviar trading ring that shook the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources made big headlines last year, but the intricacies of the scandal were often lost in the headlines. The scandal involved sturgeon conservationists, local fishing clubs and sturgeon eggs that were donated to the DNR.

Sturgeon, the prehistoric fish found in areas around the world, were nearly fished to extinction in the 19th century due to a demand for their eggs, which can be turned into incredibly expensive caviar.

Illustration showing some of the events of the caviar scandal in Wisconsin.
Whitney Anderson
Illustration showing some of the events of the caviar scandal in Wisconsin.

"Lake Winnebago [in Wisconsin], it's very fortunate in that it has a healthy population of sturgeon, which is very rare in the world ... in most parts of the world they're either extinct or highly endangered. But because Wisconsin had a lot of conservation efforts early on, there's this healthy population and it's so healthy that there is a spear-fishing season," says Tea Krulos, a freelance writer whose piece on the scandal was featured in this month's Milwaukee Magazine.

Krulos explains that since sturgeon are critically endangered or extinct in other parts of the world and because demand for caviar remains high, there are a lot of protections in place for sturgeon. Fishers cannot sell or barter any eggs they catch. Fishers can have the eggs processed into caviar to use or give away, or they can donate the eggs to the Wisconsin DNR for scientific studies.

That is where things got messy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched an investigation in Wisconsin after receiving a tip that there might be a sturgeon caviar black market developing around Lake Winnebago.

"What they discovered was that within the Department of Natural Resources itself there was sort of a culture of people who were producing caviar," Krulos explains.

After eggs are studied by the DNR, they can either be sent back to the fisher who donated them or the DNR can dispose of them. Instead of throwing these eggs away, people at the DNR were sending them to a caviar processing facility that would get a portion of the eggs in exchange for processing the donated sturgeon eggs into caviar. That was considered bartering and against the law.

The strong protections for sturgeon in Wisconsin are credited as one of the main reasons the state continues to have a healthy population of the fish. Krulos says the crackdown at the DNR has ruffled some fishing clubs, since many of the people caught up in the scandal were avid sturgeon conservationists.

Wisconsin's unique situation may be about to change. Krulos explains, "There is a petition to get sturgeon as endangered and illegal to fish in general. So there might be an exception made for Lake Winnebago, but it also could mean that in the future there might not be any sturgeon fishing."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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