Every spring, game warden Rob Farr patrols the reservoirs of the Osage River in central Missouri, near the town of Warsaw. A tall, bluff, gray-haired man in his late 50s, he's worked as a Missouri Department of Conservation warden for 34 years, and he gives the rare impression of a man who thoroughly enjoys his job.
“It's just satisfying to catch someone who needs caught,” he says. Most of the violations he encounters on the water are minor: fishermen or women with expired fishing permits, boats carrying one fish too many or too short.
But as Farr pilots his motorboat across Lake Truman and the Lake of the Ozarks, he's also looking for more sinister business. Years ago, people started finding stinking piles of dead fish, bellies slit and emptied, at the ends of Warsaw's dirt roads, and he knew that what he'd long expected had finally come to pass.
The centuries-long persecution of an ancient family of fish—a chase that had ricocheted from Russia to the Atlantic coast of North America to Kazhakstan and Iran—had entered its endgame.
Caviar poaching had arrived in the Ozarks.
The most peculiar species in the Osage is the American paddlefish, which looks less like a fish than a prehistoric marine reptile. While “snaggers” admire paddlefish for their size and strength, the species is most famous for its bloodline: they are related to sturgeon, the family of fish that supplies the world with caviar.
Like sturgeon, female paddlefish bloat with tiny eggs, and a single paddlefish can contain ten pounds of roe, worth as much as $40,000 when labeled and sold as high-grade Russian caviar.
EDITORS NOTE: For the full version, of this story, posted July 28 2014 on the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), please click HERE. Photos by Dennis Chamberlin.