Photograph by Bill Ingram, Palm Beach Post, ZUMA Press.
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American paddlefish caviar (center), among an assortment of caviars, has grown in popularity in recent years.
Photograph by Bill Ingram, Palm Beach Post, ZUMA Press.
The Plate

How Oklahoma Cornered the Market in … Caviar

At first sight, it’s hard to imagine why the American paddlefish is at the center of a heated, nearly philosophical debate.

Native to the Mississippi River Basin, the prehistoric species of sturgeon is a bizarre creature. It can grow to be more six feet long, weighs an average of 60 pounds, and has a long, flat appendage jutting out of its head.

And it’s valuable. When the Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon population—the traditional, prized source of caviar—collapsed in the 1980s, market pressures shifted to species that could offer a similar product. American fishermen began producing paddlefish caviar from the fish’s slimy, black rolls of eggs, and a handful of individuals started aquaculture operations, calling themselves paddlefish ranchers.

Poaching spiked, too, with criminals selling illegally harvested paddlefish eggs on the international black market. Considered a threatened species, paddlefish are now protected by state, national, and international conservation laws.

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A fisherman displays the impressive mouth of a paddlefish. Photograph by Ryan Schuessler

This need for more law enforcement is what’s made the state of Oklahoma one of the world’s largest purveyors of paddlefish caviar, producing thousands of pounds each year. It’s an entirely self-sufficient program that’s hailed as an innovative way to monitor a fishery—but not everybody agrees. Private producers in other states say Oklahoma’s program is driving down the price of the caviar and that it’s become increasingly difficult for individuals to earn a living off the fish. Most of all, many say, private businesses shouldn’t have to compete with a government agency.

“If we go back [to] ten years ago, we had a tremendous fishery on Grand Lake, and it was becoming more and more popular with fishermen and more popular with poachers,” says Brandon Brown, director of the paddlefish program at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma is one of the country’s largest paddlefish fisheries.

Under state law, no individual in Oklahoma can possess more than three pounds of paddlefish eggs and can only possess eggs from one fish. It’s illegal to transport those eggs out of the state.

The government, however, can. Launched in 2008, the DWC’s paddlefish program has made waves in the international caviar market and is seen by many as a successful model for conservation. Since the program began, caviar sales have brought nearly $15 million into the DWC’s coffers, with Oklahoma’s output equivalent to that of a private commercial fishing operation that employs multiple fishermen.

But Brown emphasizes that the DWC is in the business of conservation, not caviar. “We’re fish biologists, we’re game wardens,” he says. “The purpose of this is to manage our fisheries.”

The state’s Paddlefish Research Center in the northeastern town of Miami is the center of it all. Recreational anglers who pay for paddlefish-snagging licenses bring their catch to the center, where employees clean and package the meat for free. In exchange, the state collects data on the fish—to help manage the fishery—and keeps the eggs, which are then turned into caviar and sold on the international market. All profits go back to the DWC.

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Netting the paddlefish in Oklahoma. Photograph by Ryan Schuessler

Proponents of the program hail it as an innovative, self-sustaining way to manage Oklahoma’s abundant paddlefish fishery. Brent Gordon, one of the biologists behind the programOklahoma’s “paddlefish guy,” now retired—once said he had some of the best fishery data in the world because of the program. “It’s priceless,” he says. Because of caviar profits, the department has been able to buy new equipment, boost law enforcement, and grow its educational programs across the state.

“That’s one of the wonderful things about this program.” Brown says. “One hundred percent of the revenue is used on law enforcement, or fish and wildlife research, or conservation efforts, or education across Oklahoma. This isn’t just benefiting paddlefish, its benefiting black bears, quail, endangered species, non-endangered species, lizards, butterflies, even other insects.”

Under state law, no individual in Oklahoma can possess more than three pounds of paddlefish eggs and can only possess eggs from one fish. It’s illegal to transport those eggs out of the state. The government, however, can.

He added: “Our law enforcement efforts have been stepped up significantly. I think paddlefish law enforcement in Oklahoma is as good right now as it’s ever been.”

But there’s a catch. Commercial fishermen and paddlefish farmers from across the region—Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, and other states—all point to Oklahoma’s program as the reason their businesses are suffering and take issue with the fact that they’re having to compete with a government agency.

Since it’s the recreational anglers who are catching Oklahoma’s paddlefish, the state’s caviar operation has few overhead costs. Their supply of eggs is free, meaning they can sell at a lower cost. In previous years, Oklahoma sold its caviar for anywhere between $50 and $150 per pound. Private producers have to sell their eggs at $150 to $300 to make a profit, depending on their overhead costs. Given the amount of caviar Oklahoma produces, those private producers say the state is saturating the market with thousands of pounds of low-cost product, driving down the price.

“It’s going to have an effect if it’s in place, and that’s what hurts,” says Jessie George, a Marvell, Arkansas, fishermen who’s fished the species for decades. “The concern is all I got, because that’s about all you can do.”

George, who once produced upwards of 4,000 pounds of paddlefish caviar each year, now has an output of approximately 2,000 pounds annually. He said Oklahoma’s program is one of the reasons for his business’s decline.

Brown, who declined to share the going rate of Oklahoma’s caviar, disagrees that the state is driving down the price. In 2015, the state sold approximately 11,000 pounds of caviar, mostly to buyers in Japan—down from previous years, as the state cut back on the number of snagging permits issued, Brown says.

“I think a pretty good case could be made that we are helping things,” he says. “Paddlefish caviar for many years was kind of looked down on as a second rate caviar. We are an affordable, similar-quality substitute for [beluga] sturgeon. But for a long time, people just didn’t take paddlefish caviar seriously. Now, [we] and a few others are producing some really good paddlefish caviar, and people are really starting to look at it differently.”

But an individual can’t compete with a state like Oklahoma, George says. Renee Koerner, who farm-raises paddlefish for meat and caviar, agrees.

“There’s such a world demand for caviar, and I feel like they are making it a lot more difficult for people to even want to get in the industry and for those of us in the industry to be competitive,” says Koerner, who raises the fish in southern Ohio. “I don’t think the government should compete against a private business, period.”

She added: “I feel passionately that this is a product that could transform the Midwest, just like wine did to California.”

Ryan Schuessler is a multimedia journalist who has contributed articles to Al Jazeera America, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. His work is featured on his website.