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DNR Biologist, Bartender Charged After Investigation Into Illegal Caviar Trade

The 2021 Sturgeon Spearing Season Is Expected To Be Fruitful Thanks To Good Conditions

USFWSmidwest (CC BY 2.0)

Sturgeon spearing season is set to begin Saturday on Lake Winnebago.

It comes the same week Calumet County’s district attorney filed charges against an official from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — the agency that oversees sturgeon season — for allegedly obstructing a conservation warden’s investigation into the illegal trade of sturgeon caviar.

Ryan Koenigs, the DNR biologist, had been dubbed the state’s “sturgeon general.” He’s held his position since 2012. On Thursday, he was placed on administrative leave, according to the Associated Press.

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Court documents show the investigation began in 2017 and uncovered multiple people involved in illegally selling or trading the valuable fish eggs. It focused on whether DNR employees had been giving eggs — initially collected to study fertility — to processors in order to receive jars of caviar in return.

One DNR employee said he and his colleagues would share the caviar, sometimes adding it to pizza, according to a criminal complaint. He said they had it processed so it wouldn’t go to waste.

Earlier this month, Shawn Wendt, a 51-year-old bartender, was charged in Fond du Lac County with two counts of illegally bartering for sturgeon roe.

According to court documents, Wendt said he processed caviar for friends or other spearers who were referred to him — a procedure that involves removing “the membrane and blood from the eggs” and adding salt. In exchange, he got to keep some to serve at the bar, he said.

Preparing the caviar is a delicate process that Wendt had been doing for 15 years, he said. Afterward, spearers typically kept the caviar they could eat and left the rest with him, Wednt said, noting he never received money for processing the caviar or selling it at the restaurant. A wild game serving permit from the DNR is required to serve game fish in restaurants.

On Feb. 4, an elderly couple was also charged with illegally trading game fish in Fond du Lac County. Local outlets report Mary and Victor Schneider continued to process caviar, keeping half in return, after being told by wildlife officials that the practice was prohibited.

Sturgeon populations are vulnerable to overfishing because it takes the fish years to reach sexual maturity and females spawn infrequently. Selling or trading sturgeon caught in Wisconsin is illegal.

In Wisconsin, sturgeon are well known for their large size and prehistoric look. But across the globe they’re most prized for their unfertilized eggs. Roe is also harvested from other fish like salmon and trout, but the most expensive caviar comes from wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black seas.