Illinois man pleads guilty to illegally trafficking in paddlefish

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Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that a Hinsdale, Illinois, man pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to illegally trafficking in paddlefish caviar after being caught in an undercover operation in the Warsaw, Missouri, area.

In support of Missouri’s paddlefish conservation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation conducted a covert investigation, “Operation Roadhouse,” centered on an area known as the Roadhouse in Warsaw. As part of the covert operation, state and federal officers operated a paddlefish snagging business during the 2011 and 2012 paddlefish seasons. Covert officers also sold paddlefish to people who were interested in buying them.

Fedor Pakhnyuk, 41, of Hinsdale, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Matt J. Whitworth to trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act.

Pakhnyuk admitted that he traveled to Missouri in April 2010. He spoke with covert agents about the merits of caviar, gave them a sample of caviar that he had made, and explained how he processed paddlefish eggs into caviar in his motel room. Pakhnyuk returned to the Roadhouse in April 2011 and began spending time at the dock area. Covert agents routinely saw him (along with his family members) processing paddlefish at a fish cleaning station behind a motel near the Roadhouse. Covert agents learned that he was making deals with fishermen in which he would take a portion of the eggs for cleaning their paddlefish. In some cases, Pakhnyuk would get all of the eggs for cleaning the fish. Covert agents watched Pakhnyuk process numerous paddlefish under this type of arrangement.

Both before and after leaving Missouri, Pakhnyuk had conversations with covert agents about the possibility of entering into a caviar business together. Pakhnyuk proposed that the covert agents provide him with all of the raw paddlefish eggs they could acquire, and he would process them into caviar and sell them at the markets he knew about in Chicago and Minneapolis. Pakhnyuk proposed that he and the covert agents would split the profits. In support of his plan, Pakhnyuk stated that he had processed 80 quarts of caviar during his time at the Roadhouse and that 72 quarts had already been sold for $15,000. Pakhnyuk claimed that he already had orders for 50 liters of caviar for the following year.

Pakhnyuk returned to the Roadhouse in March and April 2012 and resumed his practice of processing other fishermen’s paddlefish for a share of the processed caviar. During those months he continued to speak with covert agents about going into business together.

On April 29, 2012, Pakhnyuk negotiated with covert agents to purchase frozen paddlefish caviar from them to supplement the caviar he already obtained. Pakhnyuk stated that, in addition to the seven jars of caviar that he bought from the covert agents, he had 36 quarts of caviar from his arrangements with Roadhouse fishermen. The covert agents stated that it was risky to have that much caviar at once, but the defendant assured them that he would sell it without a problem. On April 30, 2012, Pakhnyuk transported approximately 40 jars of processed caviar from Missouri to Illinois.

Under federal statutes, Pakhnyuk is subject to a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.

“Blackmarket caviar has the potential to erode our American fisheries, leaving them as overfished as they have been in other parts of the world. This investigation shows our commitment to collaborating with the Missouri Department of Conservation and other partners to protect this important resource,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Assistant Director for Law Enforcement Edward Grace.

The Lacey Act

The Lacey Act is a federal statute which makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase fish that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any state, or to attempt to do so. Such conduct constitutes a felony crime if the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct involving the purchase or sale, offer to purchase or sell, or intent to purchase or sell, fish with a market value in excess of $350, knowing that the fish were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of, or in a manner unlawful under, a law or regulation of any state.

Paddlefish Trafficking

The American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), also called the Mississippi paddlefish or the “spoonbill,” is a freshwater fish that is primarily found in the Mississippi River drainage system.  Paddlefish eggs are marketed as caviar. Paddlefish were once common in waters throughout the Midwest. However, the global decline in other caviar sources, such as sturgeon, has led to an increased demand for paddlefish caviar. This increased demand has led to over-fishing of paddlefish, and consequent decline of the paddlefish population.

Missouri law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs which have been removed or extracted from a paddlefish carcass. Missouri law also prohibits the sale or purchase, or offer of sale or purchase, of paddlefish eggs. There are also several restrictions on the purchase and possession of whole paddlefish in Missouri.

This case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney James B. Nelson of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence E. Miller of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri. It was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation, with assistance by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

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