Photo courtesy of MDC.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced today that a Colorado man has pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally trafficking in paddlefish caviar after being caught in an undercover operation in the Warsaw, Mo., area.
During March and April 2011, 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. Covert officers also sold paddlefish to people who were interested in buying them.
Felix Baravik, 49, of Aurora, Colorado, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Matt J. Whitworth o Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, to illegally trafficking in paddlefish, in violation of the Lacey Act.
By pleading guilty, Baravik admitted that he traveled from Colorado to Missouri on April 16, 2012. On that day, he and his co-conspirators met with covert agents posing as fishermen who had a boat, which they were going to use to fish for paddlefish. During that conversation, conspirators exchanged telephone numbers with the covert agents and Baravik told the covert agents to call if they caught a paddlefish.
The next day, conspirators arranged to purchase female paddlefish from covert agents. Baravik participated in the conversations regarding the paddlefish.
On April 18, 2012, Baravik and a co-conspirator went fishing for paddlefish with the covert agents. During the fishing trip, the conspirators exceeded the Missouri daily take limit. The conspirators kept the paddlefish that they took and processed them by removing the eggs from the carcass, and further processed the eggs to make caviar.
On April 20, 2012, Baravik and the other conspirators transported the paddlefish and paddlefish eggs that they acquired from Missouri to Colorado.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, the government and Baravik agree to jointly recommend to the court a sentence of three years of probation and a $5,000 fine. The first six months of probation will be served as home detention, and Baravik shall not fish, or accompany anyone fishing, anywhere in the world during the term of his probation. Baravik must also perform 500 hours of community service. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.
USA v. Nahapetyan
In a separate case arising from the same investigation, Bogdan Nahapetyan, 35, of Lake Ozark, Mo., pleaded guilty on Nov. 12, 2013, to the same offense.
Nahapetyan had numerous interactions and conversations with undercover investigators concerning the purchase of female paddlefish and paddlefish eggs. Although the investigators informed Nahapetyan numerous times that the purchase of paddlefish was illegal in the state of Missouri, Nahapetyan arranged to purchase numerous female paddlefish and multiple pounds of paddlefish eggs. For example, on April 24, 2012, Nahapetyan negotiated with the undercover investigators to purchase 80 pounds of paddlefish eggs and five female paddlefish for $4,625. While loading the purchased caviar and female paddlefish into their van, Nahapetyan placed an additional order with the undercover investigators for more fish and caviar.
Under federal statutes, Nahapetyan is subject to a sentence of up to one year in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $100,000. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.
The American paddlefish (Polydon 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.
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.
This case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney James B. Nelson of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and Supervisory 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.