California Fish and Game wardens arrested seven men suspected of catching Sacramento sturgeon by using juvenile salmon as bait, then selling the fish for its high-dollar eggs or caviar, officials reported Friday.
The arrest comes shortly after the Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended a closure of commercial and recreational fishing of Fall Chinook salmon off the California coast. It is the second year in a row such a closure has been called because of unprecedented low numbers of salmon.
"It's amazing how thoughtless and illegal people can be," said public information officer Harry Morse. "It's doubly heinous they were using baby salmon we have a tremendous shortage of."
Dubbed Operation Colusa Clan, the bust is the eighth major sturgeon poaching operation since 2003. Most of the fish were caught in the Sacramento River near the town of Colusa, according to Fish and Game.
Last year at this time, wardens caught poachers in a similar major undercover operation. A series of individual poaching arrests also came last year, Morse added.
This is the first time an organized group of poachers have used large numbers of baby salmon to bait the sturgeon.
"Each morning, they would catch as many as they could," about five to 25 young salmon as they journeyed downstream to begin their ocean cycle," Morse said.
"We are using every resource we have available to keep up with sturgeon and salmon poaching," said DFG Law Enforcement Division Chief Nancy Foley said. "This is a huge case, and we will continue to make every effort to stop poaching."
Friday morning, wardens served search and arrest warrants on Ivan Banatskyi, of Citrus Heights; Sergey Sokalskiy, of Citrus Heights; Andrey Bukaty, of Sacramento; Petr Ivanovich Kolosov, of Rancho Cordova; Yevgeniy Leontyuk, of Rancho Cordova; Alexandr Paripa, of Sacramento; and Serhiy V. Omelchuck, of Sacramento.
Fish and Game investigators are calculating the value of the caviar on the black market. In the past, such eggs have fetched $100 a pint in San Francisco, Morse said.
The case remains under investigation.
The arrested men face several charges, including felony conspiracy and illegal use of salmon as a bait fish.
If convicted of all charges, the men could be fined between $5,000 and $10,000 and serve up to a year in jail.
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