DFG Busts Nine in two Sac/SF Sturgeon Caviar Poaching Operations

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Posted by DFG on May 12, 2005 at 06:32:05:

Department of Fish and Game (DFG) officers arrested nine suspects early Thursday, putting the lid on two alleged illegal white Sturgeon caviar peddling operations that stretched from the Sacramento area to San Francisco.

The two-month investigation began in early March after officers with DFG’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) received information that Nikolay Krasnodemskiy, 34, was allegedly selling processed sturgeon out of a North Highlands auto body shop. DFG’s investigative trail led to five other suspects in San Francisco, who were allegedly buying the finished product * caviar * from Krasnodemskiy, for up to $140 a pound. Sturgeon is mostly poached for caviar, the processed “roe” (eggs) of the fish.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the illegal commercialization of white sturgeon in the Sacramento area,” said DFG Capt. Tony Warrington, who headed up the investigation, called Delta Beluga II. “If you look at the short time frame we investigated these suspects, and the amount of illegal product we saw change hands during that period, it’s not hard to determine that these suspects had been at it for some time.”

In addition to the arrest of Krasnodemskiy in Sacramento, the other San Francisco felony conspiracy arrests included Mark Golmyan, 54, Igor Donets, 55, Arkady Rubinshteyn, 50, Alexander Averbakh, 60, and George Buck, 33, all of San Francisco. All were arrested at their residences. During the arrests, officers seized 24 jars of caviar from Rubinshteyn, and 46 jars of caviar and 30 pounds of sturgeon meat from the residence of Averbakh and Buck.

Golmyan owns and operates Gastronom Russian Deli on Geary St. in San Francisco, and was reportedly selling the caviar there for $15 an ounce, or $240 a pound. The others were selling the caviar out of their residences for up to $140 a pound, said Lt. Kathy Ponting of the SOU. During the short surveillance period, wardens reportedly monitored a total of five deliveries by Krasnodemskiy * 120 pounds * of the caviar to San Francisco, where it had a black market value of approximately $16,000.

The second part of the operation, developed in the past month and called Operation Parking Lot, involved the misdemeanor arrests of Vasily Agapov, 41, Pavel Kalinovskiy, 34, and Oleg Beknazarov, 32, all of Sacramento, Ponting said. The three suspects, who were also arrested early Thursday, were all identified after Agapov reportedly solicited DFG wardens on the Sacramento River to buy any sturgeon they caught.

A suspect convicted of felony conspiracy to illegally take sturgeon is subject to a maximum fine of $15,000 and three years in state prison, Ponting said. The district attorney filed all charges in Sacramento County Superior Court, and they ranged from illegal possession of sturgeon to illegal sales.

"This operation was very important because sturgeon is a species that is severely impacted by poaching,” Warrington said. “Because female sturgeon spawn only every four years, poaching that targets female sturgeon can have disastrous effects on sturgeon populations.”

This is the second major sturgeon poaching operation conducted by DFG in the last two years. In the first operation in May 2003, DFG officers arrested a total of 22 suspects in Sacramento, culminating a two-year joint state and federal investigation that included Oregon and the state of Washington.

White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) is a fish species indigenous to the Sacramento River in California, and the Columbia River in Washington. California does not allow for the commercial catch or sale of white sturgeon. Currently, fish can only be legally taken for sport purposes between the sizes of 46 to 72 inches in length.

White sturgeon is one of the most spectacular native fish species in the state. They live a long time * some reaching 100 years in age * and grow to a size of up to 1,000 pounds. Populations were severely depleted by unrestricted commercial fishing in the last two decades of the 19th century in both the Columbia and the Sacramento-San Joaquin systems and as a result, California imposed a total closure of the sturgeon fishery from 1916 until 1955. Since that time, sturgeon can only be taken through sport fishing regulated by a closely managed slot limit, which is currently one per day.

Sturgeon populations vary through time and are affected by low river flows, long term exposure to chemical contaminants, collisions with boat and ship propellers, and poaching. Population peaks noted in the mid-1960s, the mid-1980s and the late 1990s were associated with earlier good flow conditions. In 1997, the white sturgeon population was estimated at 147,000. The current population is estimated at 80,000 with a present annual legal harvest rate of 5 percent, said Patrick Coulston, supervising biologist for DFG’s Bay-Delta Branch.

“The status of the population in California remains stable, due in large part to DFG’s active management of the legal fishery,” Coulston said. “Regulation changes, and fisheries closures, have regularly been made during the last several decades in response to the condition of the population. Because sturgeon mature late, spawn infrequently, are dependent on good environmental conditions, this is a species that easily can be over-exploited.”

This investigation is the direct result of legitimate anglers giving their local wardens and the CalTIP program information about poachers who were blatantly disregarding the regulations imposed to protect the resources, said Ponting. By contacting the 1-888-DFG-CALTIP number to report poachers and polluters, callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.

Contact: Steve Martarano, DFG Office of Communications
(916) 804-1714

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