May 6, 2005

Sturgeon Poaching Leads to Caviar Sting

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- In a busy San Francisco delicatessen that caters to Eastern European immigrants and city dwellers craving ethnic food, customers snapped up caviar for as much as $240 a pound.

Yet this caviar came not from Russia's Caspian Sea, but from the nearby Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where authorities say poachers illegally sold roe and flesh from rare white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America.

Trailed early Thursday by news cameras, state game wardens arrested Mark Golmyan, 54, owner of the Gastronom Russian Deli on Geary Street, along with four other San Francisco residents accused of buying the caviar for up to $140 a pound and then selling it to Bay Area residents, mostly of Russian descent.

Department of Fish and Game officials said Nikolay Krasnodemskiy, 34, prepared the caviar in two auto body shops in an industrial area north of Sacramento before sending it to San Francisco.

They tracked five shipments he made to the San Francisco residents - a total of 120 pounds of Delta caviar valued at $16,000. It was then sold out of homes and at the Gastronom, cited in San Francisco's "Let's Go" tourist guide for its "earthy loaves and elegant cakes."

Krasnodemskiy was arrested at his residence in North Highlands, then taken to the shops where wardens said they found fishing poles, a scale, a fishing net, and jars to hold the fish eggs.

Golmyan briefly argued with game wardens who appeared at his residence, saying he didn't want his picture taken by news crews who'd been tipped to the arrests and whose double-parked vehicles clogged nearly a block of his quiet neighborhood street.

He eventually was escorted in handcuffs, without commenting to reporters, into a waiting truck, his head bowed and his face partially covered with a baseball cap. A woman who later answered the telephone at his deli declined to comment.

Krasnodemskiy and Golmyan, along with Igor Donets, 55, Arkady Rubinshteyn, 50, Alexander Averbakh, 60, and George Buck, 33, all were charged with felony conspiracy to illegally take sturgeon, a charge that can bring up to three years in prison. Wardens said they seized 24 jars of caviar from Rubinshteyn, and 46 jars of caviar and 30 pounds of sturgeon from the residence of Averbakh and Buck.

Mark Tarasenko, 20, of North Highlands, was arrested after wardens searching his father's auto body shop as part of the sturgeon investigation found eight to 10 explosive devices, said Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano. Investigators could not immediately determine why he had the devices. The father was not arrested.

Three other Sacramento suspects - Vasily Agapov, 41, Pavel Kalinovskiy, 34, and Oleg Beknazarov, 32 - were arrested on unrelated misdemeanor charges of soliciting game wardens to buy any sturgeon they caught on the Sacramento River.

Fish and Game officials courted the media attention to highlight a growing problem endangering sturgeon populations. The bony, bottom-feeding fish have been described as "living fossils" that have changed little since the days of dinosaurs.

Demand and prices for American-raised caviar soared when the Russian sturgeon fishery collapsed after the fall of the former Soviet Union. Wildlife organizations warned two years ago that U.S. sturgeon and paddlefish populations can't sustain an increase in legal and illegal fishing.

California bans the commercial catch or sale of white sturgeon, and severely restricts sport fishing for the species. The increased trafficking has led to a spate of arrests nationwide in recent years, including 22 arrests in May 2003 by California wildlife officials after a two-year state and federal investigation that included Oregon and Washington.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in the illegal commercialization of white sturgeon in the Sacramento area," Fish and Game Capt. Tony Warrington said. The department said a citizen's tip led to the investigation.

Poaching is particularly disastrous for the species because female sturgeon only spawn every four years, and it takes years to reach reproductive age.

White sturgeon are found only in the Sacramento River and Washington's Columbia River. They can live 100 years and grow to 1,000 pounds.

The population was nearly wiped out in both rivers during western expansion more than a century ago, leading to a ban on sturgeon fishing in California between 1916 and 1955. Sport fishermen are now allowed to catch one sturgeon per day.

The population ebbs and flows, peaking about every 20 years. The peak population of 147,000 in the Sacramento River in 1997 has since dropped to an estimated 80,000 fish, said Fish and Game biologist Patrick Coulston. About 5 percent are legally caught each year.


Associated Press writer Justin M. Norton contributed to this story from San Francisco.


On the Net: