ON THE MISSOURI RIVER — If the weather's just right, Craig Gemming can drop a net in the Missouri River and re- turn a day later to find dozens of shovelnose sturgeon tangled inside.
But he fears that the day will come -- perhaps soon -- when he won't be able to find one no matter how many nets he drops.
Gemming, who releases the fish after he counts them, leads Missouri's effort to preserve the shovelnose and two other species of sturgeon. He's witnessed a marked increase in the commercial fishing of shovelnose over the past few years.
Conservationists say shovelnose eggs have been targeted as a replacement for caviar from a shrinking beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea. Shovelnose caviar sells for hundreds of dollars per pound.
Sturgeon fishing spiked in Missouri during the 1980s, when embargoes and poor relations with the Soviet Union and Iran restricted the flow of top-notch beluga caviar from the Caspian and Black seas.
But it slowed in the United States after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, clearing the way for increased fishing in the Caspian. As the numbers of sturgeon plummeted there, there was a jump in the numbers taken in Missouri.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, commercial anglers on the Mississippi River have taken an average of about 6,300 pounds of sturgeon per year between 1945 and the turn of the century. In 2000, anglers reported taking 17,500 pounds of sturgeon. The next year, it was up to 65,128 pounds.
Statistics from the Missouri River show a similar trend. After a boom in the early 1990s, sturgeon taken fell as low as 717 pounds in 1994. By 2001, more than 12,000 pounds of sturgeon were taken.
Rachel Collins, vice president of Chicago-based Collins Caviar Co., believes that the numbers lie. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks two years ago, Collins says, the caviar industry has hardly been booming.
"High-end food has really struggled," she said.
She blames the increased numbers on more accurate reporting by commercial anglers, who used to dodge taxes by saying they caught less fish than were in their nets.
In the past two years, Collins says, most caviar companies have had to reorganize, merge or fold. Her company sells shovelnose sturgeon caviar in one-ounce containers for $38 or 6 1/2-ounce containers for $160.
"It's considered premier American caviar," Collins said, adding that some caviar connoisseurs insist that American caviar is inferior to imported caviar, but the quality is subject to a person's taste.
Good shovelnose caviar has a light, clean taste with a buttery or nutty finish, she says.
Few of the company's sturgeon come from Missouri because the state is known for its "extremely strict" regulations. Collins Caviar fishermen report that rivers are teeming with sturgeon.
"They're not impacting the population, which is the usual argument from government agencies," Collins said. "That's really not the case."
Conservationists say the caviar trade also poses a risk for Missouri's two other sturgeon species -- the pallid and lake.
The pallid sturgeon is on the federal government's endangered species list and the lake sturgeon is considered endangered in Missouri. The state considers the shovelnose vulnerable; at the rate it is being fished, it could easily become endangered.
The three species are differentiated by their snout shape and the positioning of whisker-like barbels near the fish's mouth. Experienced anglers can tell them apart.
"These guys know the difference between the fish, and they don't take them because the last thing they need is to have an agent give them a surprise visit and have pallid sturgeon in their nets," Collins said.
Sturgeon are of little commercial value beyond harvesting their eggs for caviar, said Vince Travnichek of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Smoked sturgeon meat sells for about 35 cents a pound, he said.
"The money's in the caviar," Travnichek said.
David Hendrix, manager of the Neosho National Fish Hatchery in southwest Missouri, is part of the effort to breed and restock sturgeon in the Missouri River. In October, Hendrix and his co-workers released 2,400 pallid sturgeon evenly between Boonville, Mo.; Vermillion, S.D., and Bellevue, Neb. The hatchery is preparing for its next class of the endangered fish.
The hatchery's goal is to help remove pallid sturgeon from the endangered species list. But before that can happen, biologists must find pallid sturgeon ready to breed. Most sturgeon don't become sexually mature until they are about 15 years old.
And because caviar is made of fish eggs, only mature females are targeted. Or, as Gemming points out, the only fish taken are those ready to reproduce. That makes it even more difficult to naturally maintain the sturgeon population.
Missouri conservation officials found only six pallid sturgeon in 2001 and five last year.
Hendrix's hatchery released 1,000 pallid sturgeon nationwide last year. He hopes that it will be able to raise 4,000 or more next year.
To protect the fish that are released, Gemming says conservation and wildlife agents are checking fish markets more frequently to look for endangered species hidden among legal fish. The conservation department is also requiring more thorough reporting of the kinds of fish that are being caught.