The eggs, transformed into tiny black pearls prized by the foodie world for their briny, briny flavor profile, were declared by state fisheries workers necessary for research on the Wisconsin sturgeon population.
But prosecutors say the state biologist who oversees the traditional sturgeon harpooning season in Lake Winnebago and its watershed, a winter rite for the state’s fishing enthusiast, had acquired an expensive taste and illicit for caviar made from eggs.
Biologist Ryan P. Koenigs, an employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources since 2008, accepted at least $ 20,000 in jars of caviar in return for supplying a caviar processor with eggs that had been collected under the guise of research, a criminal complaint filed last week in Winnebago County said.
The caviar processing business is run by a former biologist for the state, according to prosecutors, who said he was one of several caviar processors who obtained sturgeon eggs in the framework of the barter system. The former employee, who prosecutors said obtained 65 pounds of eggs in 2015 producing $ 100,000 in caviar, has not been charged.
In Wisconsin, state law requires that the eggs be returned to the person who speared the sturgeon, if requested, or discarded. Prosecutors noted that caviar produced from sturgeon roe can sell for more than $ 100 an ounce.
Lake sturgeon, some of which can live up to 150 years but which are designated by the American Fisheries Society as threatened in North America, are part of the state’s rich and original fishing heritage.
Mr Koenigs’ arrest last week, along with three others who were not state employees, followed a three-year investigation by the state and the US Fish and Wildlife Service . A former supervisor of the fisheries unit told investigators that employees would accept the caviar and eat some of it at team meetings, take some for their own use and give it to bars, prosecutors said.
“Caviar is highly sought after in legal and illegal markets, and significant efforts have been made in this type of investigation around the world to protect the sturgeon species carrying caviar,” indicates the criminal complaint.
Mr Koenigs, 36, of Appleton, Wisconsin, was charged last Wednesday in Calumet County for obstructing an investigation by a conservation warden, authorities said. Prosecutors said he lied to investigators about the scheme, which began before he began overseeing the sturgeon spear-harpooning season in 2012. He also reset a state-issued cell phone in an attempt to cover up evidence, according to a criminal complaint.
He was charged last Thursday in Winnebago County with one count of misdemeanor theft, prosecutors said.
Scott Ceman, an attorney for Mr Koenigs, said in an email that his client would plead not guilty. He declined to comment further on the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Department said Sunday evening that Mr Koenigs had been placed on administrative leave but could not discuss the matter beyond his status with the agency.
The arrest of Mr. Koenigs, who some media called the “sturgeon general,” came just days before the start of Saturday’s sturgeon harpooning season in Wisconsin.
The tightly controlled program requires that each sturgeon caught be recorded at a state-run recording station, which collects information on length, weight, sex and tagging details. The season generally lasts 16 days or until the harvest limits by sex for a given fishery are reached.
Inspectors sometimes remove reproductive glands from adult female sturgeons that contain eggs so that they can be studied.
“Lake sturgeon and many species of sturgeon are rare and are currently threatened, endangered and even extinct in parts of the United States and the world, which makes Wisconsin’s harvest season unique,” said declared the criminal complaint in Winnebago County.
Prosecutors said earlier investigations had linked the caviar to organized crime and traffickers who repackaged the eggs into higher-quality, more expensive caviar that was exported to Asian and European and resold in the United States.
“For this reason, it is important to ensure accountability for all aspects of our laws aimed at preventing the illegal commercialization of our natural resources,” the criminal complaint said.