To most people, sturgeon, with their spiny skin and whiskered snouts, may look like little more than a primitive fish, but to poachers, they’re very valuable indeed. This is why Canada and US Crime Stoppers organizations are teaming up and asking citizens to report any suspected poaching in the Great Lakes.
Poachers catch the sturgeon for their eggs, or roe, and often slice the fish open when they’re caught, then leave the bodies to rot by the lakeside. The roe (AKA caviar) is then sold on the black market, and often finds its way onto store shelves with false labels. Sturgeon are considered a species at risk in Ontario, and it is only legal to fish for them in a catch-and-release capacity. However, poachers not only catch the fish, but kill them indiscriminately, often slicing open even the males in the search for roe.
Marc Gaden of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission has asked for the public’s help in finding and stopping poachers. He spoke to the Toronto Star, saying, “If you see something suspicious, say something. If you see caviar sold in a store and it doesn’t seem right, say something.” Some of the signs of poaching are pools of blood on the ground, piles of heavy fishing line, and sometimes sturgeon that are tied up live by the riverbank by poachers waiting to hear from a buyer.
Dave Forster, president of Ontario’s Crime Stoppers, notes that sturgeon are extremely valuable to poachers. “By weight, the value of caviar can equal or exceed the equivalent weight in cocaine,” he told the Star.
Two men were recently caught poaching sturgeon when police pulled them over as they drove towards Toronto. The men said they were fishing for salmon, but when police checked their cooler, they found roe and sturgeon meat. The men were each fined $10,000.
Forster calls the sturgeon poaching “a waste,” noting that many of the fish killed have no roe because they are male or are not yet matured. “They don’t even mature until they’re at least 20 years old,” he said, noting that sturgeon also don’t spawn every year, meaning even females who could potentially be carrying roe may not contain any.
Canada does have legal sturgeon farms, which is where most legal caviar comes from. Consumers should buy from stores with a good reputation that they trust.
If you spot something suspicious, call Crime Stoppers’ anonymous tip line at 1-800-222-8477.
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