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8 Held in Probe of Alleged Sturgeon Poaching

State and federal game wardens say the suspects were part of a ring that illegally sold the giant fish and caviar up and down the West Coast.

May 10, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — State and federal game wardens culminated a two-year undercover investigation into sturgeon poaching with the arrest Friday of five immigrants from the former Soviet Union and three others suspected of black market sales of the giant fish, prized for the production of caviar.

More than 40 state Fish and Game wardens served search warrants on three homes and a suburban Sacramento fish market in a bid to shut down a poaching ring authorities believe illegally sold the caviar up and down the West Coast.

Investigators say the suspects were violating prohibitions on the commercial sale of sturgeon by illegally buying and selling fish caught in the Sacramento River as well as the Columbia River, which divides Oregon and Washington.

"We have effectively cut off one of the tentacles of sturgeon poaching" in the region, said Fred Cole, state Fish and Game assistant chief.

White sturgeon are prized by gourmets for their eggs, or roe, which are boiled in saltwater to create caviar. A 56-inch fish can produce about 10 pounds of roe, which, as caviar, can fetch as much as $150 a pound. Sturgeon live for 50 years or more and can grow to 500 pounds.

Poaching can quickly take its toll on these lumbering giants of the river, wildlife officials said. Sturgeon produce eggs every fourth year, so the indiscriminate harvest of large mature females can quickly undercut the population.

The investigation was sparked by sports anglers who called a state Fish and Game tip line to report poachers disregarding the rules against commercial purchases and sales, authorities said.

While it is legal to fish for sturgeon between the sizes of 46 to 72 inches for sport, California does not allow the commercial catch or sale of white sturgeon.

Among those arrested were a mother and son whom agents described as leaders of the poaching ring.

Yuriy Bugriyev, 28, and his mother, Tamara, 51, had been under investigation since January 2001. Over two years, they were observed buying sturgeon from sports anglers on nearly a dozen occasions, authorities said. They also recruited up to 20 anglers to poach the fish and market them. During one eight-day period alone, the pair illegally sold about 500 pounds of caviar, officials said.

Also arrested was Elena Mazur, 44, co-owner of Bon Apetit, a Citrus Heights fish market. Agents say they had witnessed sturgeon being carried into the fish market.

Charges included the illegal taking, possessing, transporting and selling of sturgeon in Oregon, Washington and California.

If convicted, the suspected poachers could face a $15,000 fine and three years in state prison. They also would lose their fishing privileges for life.

A search warrant was also served in Oregon, officials said, and additional arrests were expected as the investigation continues. Agencies involved in the investigation included the state Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon State Police's Fish and Wildlife Division and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Gov. Gray Davis commended the poaching bust, which he said will help preserve the sturgeon population in the state's largest river. "This operation sends a clear message: Poaching is illegal," Davis said. "Don't even think of doing it, period."

In the U.S., the white sturgeon is indigenous to the Columbia and Sacramento, as well as a pair of rivers in Idaho. On the West Coast, the fish are not considered an endangered species, though the population has shifted over the decades.

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