Caviar Ban Threatens Mississippi Paddlefish

Some fishermen on the Mississippi remember using buckets of paddlefish eggs as pig slop. Then the U.S. government banned caviar imports from the Caspian Sea. NPR environmental correspondent John Nielsen reports on how that ban made paddlefish caviar the preferred alternative, and led to overfishing that now threatens the species.

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The US government recently banned imports of caviar taken from endangered beluga sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea, and that has people who love fish eggs on their crackers looking around for alternatives. One option is eggs taken from a giant creature called the paddlefish, which lives in the Mississippi River system. Demand for these eggs is rising, and government biologists are worried about the future of the paddlefish. NPR's John Nielsen has a report.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Paddlefish are weird-looking filter feeders with big, flat snouts and shark-shaped tails. Big ones measure more than five feet long and weigh close to a hundred pounds. Their meat at best is an acquired taste, and up until the '70s the market for their eggs was basically non-existent. Deborah(ph) Blackwelder is a commercial fisherwoman who catches paddlefish in Savannah, Tennessee. When she was a kid, she says the eggs were used mostly as pig slop.

Ms. DEBORAH BLACKWELDER (Fisherwoman): I can remember my sisters and I and my brother--we would carry number-two washtubs full of the eggs out and feed them to the hogs.

NIELSEN: Then one day a car pulled up in the driveway. The people inside asked Blackwelder's father if he'd like to sell his paddlefish eggs to a dealer.

Ms. BLACKWELDER: Dad thought they were crazy, like, `Who in the world would want to eat a fish egg?'

NIELSEN: As it turns out, lots of people. The market for paddlefish eggs has been growing fitfully since the 1980s, and it grew again this fall when the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned imports of beluga caviar. The eggs that used to be pig slop now fetch more than $70 a pound. And Phil Bettoli, a fisheries biologist with the United States Geological Service, says pregnant paddlefish carry an average of 10 pounds of eggs or about $700 each.

Mr. PHIL BETTOLI (USGS): And that's wholesale. And then that wholesaler will turn around and the markup will be about fourfold, so now you have a 7 or $800 fish. Now multiply that by four, and you have a fish worth several thousand dollars. So there's a lot of places in the world where a fish swimming around worth a thousand or more dollars is going to get a lot of attention.

NIELSEN: Blackwelder and her family catch paddlefish in gill nets strung across low rivers. Roughly eight of every hundred of the fish they catch carry eggs. Usually she throws back everything, except the big pregnant females. Blackwelder's mother, Maudie Melson, says checking the bellies of these fish for eggs without killing them is a delicate art.

Ms. MAUDIE MELSON: I had little bitty, tiny, sharp knife, and I just run that down in there and little ol' small syringe down in there and pull up. And if it got an egg in it, I brought them in, but if I didn't, I turned him loose.

NIELSEN: But others are not so discriminating. According to a recent federal study, Tennessee paddlefish are smaller and younger than they used to be; that means fewer females are getting a chance to lay their eggs. Biologist Phil Bettoli is the author of the study.

Mr. BETTOLI: We concluded without a shadow of a doubt that the fish are being harvested at a rate that cannot go on forever; that if they kept it up, they eventually catch every last one. And we'd be in the same situation that we are in many other fisheries all over the world, both freshwater and saltwater.

NIELSEN: In hopes of avoiding a paddlefish collapse, the state of Tennessee has increased the minimum size limit for these fish and shortened the fishing season. Local traders support the move, but some local fishers don't think the rules go far enough. One of them is Debbie Blackwelder, who says there are still too many boats chasing paddlefish through local waters--not like it used to be.

Ms. BLACKWELDER: Back then you needed to fish every stretch of the river, and then now, you know, I might go down here and there might be five boats pull in to where I've fished all my life and I've never seen them before. There's just so many people trying to get into this right now 'cause they think it's quick money.

NIELSEN: Blackwelder says she's watched newcomers cut footlong slices in the bellies of juvenile female paddlefish before throwing the eggless youngsters back overboard to die. If that doesn't stop, she says it won't be long before the nets start coming up empty. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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