September 6, 2007

Oklahoma Wildlife Dept. Fishing for Commercial Success Through Caviar

By Jeff Packham

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation will soon be throwing a line into the caviar market pool to see if there are any bites.

The Wildlife Conservation Commission, which governs the department, approved on Tuesday the funding of $602,000 for a pilot program designed to sell paddlefish eggs wholesale throughout the world. The project is expected to be a positive for fishermen, the paddlefish and the department.

According to department officials, the fishermen would benefit from the egg-harvesting process, in which the fish would be cleaned, filleted and returned to them. The fish would benefit from the increased research and data gathering that will require population monitoring and maintenance, while the agency itself expects to gain from the increased exposure and anticipated revenues from the sale of the caviar.

The program, which is set to kick off by Feb. 15, was initially brought before the commission in November 2006 as a way to tap into a relatively unused market at a time when caviar demand has been at a peak.

Most caviar has traditionally been shipped in from the Caspian Sea but the United Nations put a moratorium on caviar in January 2006 due to concerns about stock level reporting and illegal sales.

Brent Gordon, northeast regional supervisor for the department, said the eggs had been a "wasted natural resource" in Oklahoma. The paddlefish, which has an adult weight range of 60 to 120 pounds, is traditionally found in Grand Lake via the Neosho River.

A mobile processing center will be located on recently purchased property at Twin Bridges, which is the intersection of the Neosho River and the Spring River.

Lt. Keith Green, game warden supervisor for the department, said the center will be positioned at that location starting out but could be mobilized to another location - such as Fort Gibson Lake or Keystone Lake - if the paddlefish population grew in those areas.

The department anticipates revenues of about $355,000 annually based on a wholesale price of $90 to $200 a pound. Green said the agency should be able to break even within 2.24 years of the pilot project.

A survey was taken of 450 fishermen throughout the state about the proposed project, and the agency was overwhelmed with the positive results.

Gordon said 99 percent of those surveyed indicated a strong response to the project while 92 percent responded that they would likely participate in the program.

"We thought they may like it, but we had no idea how much," Gordon said.

The agency anticipates 2,800 to 3,000 fish will be caught as part of the program, based on a 67-percent participation rate.

Green said the number of fishermen who participate in the program will have a significant effect on its success.

"If we can't get them to invest in it, this program is not going to work," said Green.

Despite the pilot status of the project, a similar program already exists in the Yellowstone region of Montana and North Dakota. The town of Glendive, Mont., has been the site of the model program, which was created in 1990, while Williston, N.D., put together a program of its own in 1993.

Among the concerns expressed about the program were potential pushes to bring back commercial fishing on Grand Lake as well as the possible need for liability insurance. The agency was requested to review the cost of liability insurance before the next meeting.

Green said commercial fishing was stopped in 1992 when one commercial fisherman was catching so many paddlefish that it was keeping up with the entire population. He said only the Legislature could allow commercial fishing in that area, and he expressed confidence in the individual Oklahoma fishermen preventing that from taking place.

"The public will not let it happen," Green said.

Another issue was the anticipated 50,000 to 75,000 pounds of annual waste, which Green said would be shipped 50 miles to Carthage, Mo., where it will be recycled. Contamination issues involving the shipping of the fish and the caviar are being discussed with Food and Drug Administration officials.

Director Greg Duffy said the project will be reviewed at the end of June, 2008 and a determination will be made as to whether the state should continue at that point.

Originally published by Jeff Packham.

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