Something Fishy

A bubbling demand for Missouri caviar spawns cutthroat competition.

When the season ended, the men went their separate ways. The following winter, Owens and Lewis were disappointed to find Bob Defriese had left Warsaw. Once again, they turned to bar owner Murphy for caviar contacts. Murphy introduced them to Defriese's business rival and brother, Neil Defriese, also an outlaw caviar bandit, according to authorities. They say Neil Defriese warily eyed Owens and Lewis upon meeting them, then phoned his brother Bob for a quasi-background check. "Are these guys OK?" Neil Defriese asked, Owens and Lewis standing before him.

Bob's affirmative reply provided Owens' and Lewis' immediate initiation into another paddlefish poaching ring, this one more demanding. Owens and Lewis fished at night, then met Neil Defriese and a cohort, Donald Hardy, to relinquish the eggs and spend the day drinking. Neil Defriese was Warsaw's social luminary, but he also kept afloat a sizeable operation, according to state authorities, once bragging of bagging $86,000 from just five nights of netting.

When the season ended in the spring of 1989, the poaching ring hatched a new plan to fish shovelnose sturgeon, this time legally. But it was too late. Authorities arrested Defriese and Hardy for illegal netting and wildlife trafficking. During the previous sixteen months, undercover state conservation agent Steve Nichols and Bob Lumadue of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, disguised as Owens and Lewis, had put together a federal case against the Defriese brothers and 21 others.

Hackleback gets rinsed and strained in order to separate each egg.
Jennifer Silverberg
Hackleback gets rinsed and strained in order to separate each egg.

"You kind of felt bad for them in a way," Nichols muses. "Not for what they'd been doing, because they'd killed so many fish, and it was all greed- and money-based, but here they finally decided to do it legally!"

Nichols laughs now, reminiscing about the sleepless days, once coming face-to-face with the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. "I've been on the law enforcement unit for 26 years, and I guarantee you that was the highlight of my career," he says. "It was just that touch of danger that everybody wants in their life."

The state of Missouri made wildlife trafficking a felony in 1990, largely because of the Warsaw paddlefish sting. A year later the state's conservation agency stopped paddlefish harvesting altogether.

Still, state authorities continue to worry the climate might be ripe for similar poaching shenanigans, what with the shortage of Caspian Sea caviar. They cite an eye-popping increase in annual shovelnose catch, which averaged 10,000 pounds from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers between 1945 and 2000. In 2001, the catch reached 77,000 pounds.

"You look at the Caspian Sea and see this big harvest of beluga sturgeon, and all of a sudden, it's gone," reasons Missouri Department of Conservation biologist Dave Herzog. "Those are the threats we have to pay real attention to."

How many shovelnose swim in the rivers? Head counts are impossible, officials say. But in 2001, Illinois and Missouri launched population studies to devise estimates.

"We've seen all the indications of a healthy fishery," says Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologist Rob Maher. "There's multiple ages represented. They're not just catching big fish. They're catching young fish also."

Herzog, less sanguine, concludes: "We caught thirty-five fish per net in 1997, and in 2001, only one to two shovelnose fish per net."

Fishermen call the studies bogus.

"From what I've seen on this section of river where I've fished since the few of us got started, the condition of the fish has improved significantly," says sturgeon fisherman Charlie Callaway. "There was a bunch of skinny fish; they were in poor shape. They're actually looking better."

"The Missouri Department of Conservation, whether it's caviar, catfish or buffalo, is against the little businessman," maintains Terry McNew, another Missouri angler.

The agency came close but stopped short of closing shovelnose fishing on the Missouri River last year. Instead, it instituted a $500 shovelnose permit, closed a 25-mile stretch of water and swiftly turned its attention to the Mississippi River, where Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee share jurisdiction. Representatives of those states will meet March 22, when Missouri conservation officials will seek to convince them to impose a similar permit fee.

"Anytime any state, regardless of which state it is, proposes regulations, the first thing the fishermen do is sit down and try to figure out how they can skirt the regulations," says Bill Reeves, fisheries chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency.

But Illinois officials are hesitant. "We have some concerns as to whether there's enough information out there to go ahead and do this," says Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Scott Stuewe.

On a recent afternoon, executive chef John Griffiths glides into the alcove of An American Place, a swanky new St. Louis eatery. Kathy Rost, wearing a collared shirt emblazoned with "Show-Me-Caviar," remains seated while Cliff Rost pulls two containers of caviar from a cooler, too consumed with the task to remove his camouflage cap.

Kathy estimates the couple has invested $150,000 in Show-Me-Caviar, and the returns are decent: A good year yields income of $75,000 to $100,000. But the Rosts are craving local name recognition. This is their first sales pitch to a restaurant.

"So how long have you been raising?" Griffiths asks.

"This is river-caught," Rost replies.

"Excellent," Griffiths says. "Tell me how it's harvested."

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