Oklahoma paddlefish, as good as gold

Tuesday, April 15th 2008, 11:47 pm
By: News 9

By Darren Brown, News9.com INsite team

What has a long bill, no teeth, swims, and smells like money? The Oklahoma paddlefish. This prehistoric fish has a fairly high price on its head.

Oklahoma rivers are home to a myriad of fish species. While spawning seasons are closely monitored, the paddlefish gets extra attention during the first few months of the year; because paddlefish eggs are a great substitute for sturgeon eggs, or caviar.

According March 2008 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, paddlefish caviar can cost as much as $373 per pound.

Micah Holmes, information director for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, admits he's no caviar expert, but he has done some homework. 

"Caviar historically has come from sturgeon in Russia and other places like that overseas.  However, those stocks have become depleted over the years, and a lot of those people have turned to freshwater caviar," Holmes said.

To manage the paddlefish population, and the valuable eggs, the Oklahoma Paddlefish Research and Processing Center was developed.  

Since February, over 3,500 fish have been processed. The fish are weighed, measured and a piece of jawbone is taken from each one to determine its age. The meat is then packaged and refrigerated for the person who caught it. 

The caviar is harvested, processed, and stored for future sale. The proceeds from the caviar sale will go back into managing the paddlefish operation.

The center is a big hit with the anglers, many of whom come from out-of-state. Craig Westin traveled all the way from South Dakota to catch some paddlefish.

"I've been coming out here for seven years," he said.  For Westin, the processing center is the icing on the cake, or the fish. 

"I think it's awesome that they clean 'em for us. I hate cleanin' 'em," Westin said. 

But the paddlefish don't just draw sport fishermen, they draw the poachers -- those who would take the eggs illegally and export them for profit. 

Legislation has been introduced that would toughen penalties for poaching.  House Bill 3365 would make a first offense a $5,000 fine, and a second offense up to $25,000. 

The Department of Wildlife Conservation has made a strong commitment to stopping the poaching problem, but according to Larry Manering, the chief law enforcement officer, the legislation is just another tool in the fight. 

"Is it gonna stop it all?  No sir, it sure won't," he said.  "But it might give us a little bit of a handle, a better handle on those people that are the casual players."