Newsroom Midwest Region

Illegal caviar operation leads to prison time

December 3, 2018

American paddlefish swimming with pallid sturgeon. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS.
American paddlefish swimming with pallid sturgeon. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS.

A joint undercover investigation into the illegal commercialization of paddlefish has resulted in one violator being sentenced to two years in prison. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want to thank our law enforcement colleagues with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources for spearheading this case. This undercover operation involved law enforcement professionals from four states and took several years to complete in support of paddlefish conservation.

On November 27, 2018, David M. Cox, age 64 of English, Indiana, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis by U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt. A felon from past wildlife trafficking crimes, Cox was found guilty on one count of possession of a firearm and one count of violating the Lacey Act for wildlife trafficking. Cox was sentenced to serve 24 months in federal prison on each count and will be allowed to serve the sentence concurrently. At the time of sentencing, Cox was remanded immediately into the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service.

Cox was also ordered to forfeit firearms found in his residence and business during the execution of federal search warrants, including a sawed off shotgun and a stolen handgun. Cox forfeited all paddlefish meat and caviar, as well as his boat and trailer, which were used in the illegal commercial fishing operation. Following his prison sentence, Cox will be barred from paddlefish harvesting and caviar processing operations for three years as a condition of his probation.

The American paddlefish is one of only two paddlefish species in the world and is the only paddlefish species in North America. Targeted for their high quality caviar, paddlefish are prone to illegal harvest. Seasons and size limits have been established to protect diminishing populations.

The Lacey Act is a federal law enforced by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service that makes it illegal to knowingly transport or sell wildlife taken in violation of state, federal, tribal and foreign laws or regulations. The Act defines the sale of wildlife to include the sale of guiding services for the illegal taking of wildlife. When the Lacey Act was passed in 1900, it became the first federal law to protect wildlife. It enforces civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants. Today, it regulates the import of any species protected by international or domestic law and prevents the spread of invasive species.

Other agencies heavily involved in this investigation included Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.