Man indicted for illegally harvesting fish eggs

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A former Shell Knob man has been charged with using illegal nets to catch paddlefish and harvest their eggs, which he then processed into caviar and sold to a company in Tennessee.

A federal grand jury in Springfield handed down the indictment against Thomas Jerry Nix, Jr., 38, of Memphis, Tenn., on July 9. According to the indictment, Nix allegedly participated in a conspiracy from Dec. 31, 2007, to Feb. 17, 2008, to transport and sell paddlefish eggs that were taken in violation of state and federal laws.

Nix allegedly set gill nets in the water on Table Rock Lake, checking them every one to three nets, removing the fish and relocating the nets as the paddlefish moved upstream to spawn. Gill nets are commercial fishing nets set vertically in the water so that fish swimming into it become entangled by the gills in its mesh.

After retrieving the paddlefish from the nets, Nix used a knife to slit the underside of the fish and extract the eggs, which were then sealed in plastic bags, placed in a cooler and transported to Nix's Shell Knob residence. After removing the eggs from the fish, Nix attempted to hide his illegal acts by weighting the paddlefish carcasses with rocks and sinking the carcasses in the Table Rock Lake.

The eggs taken by Nix were processed into caviar and sold to a Tennessee company that is engaged in buying, processing and selling caviar. The indictment states that Nix told the company the caviar he was selling had been lawfully taken in Arkansas.

Court documents also indicate that Nix sold approximately 387 pounds of paddlefish caviar to the Tennessee firm for $35,820.

On Feb. 17, Nix was apprehended by agents with the Missouri Department of Conservation and found in possession of eight paddlefish and approximately 78.3 pounds of unprocessed paddlefish eggs. At his residence in Shell Knob, Conservation agents discovered approximately 91.32 pounds of processed caviar.

The seven-count indictment against Nix charges him with one count of conspiracy to transport and sell paddlefish eggs that were taken in violation of state and federal laws, one count of possessing and transporting paddlefish eggs taken in violation of federal regulations and five counts of transporting and selling paddlefish caviar across state lines.

The alleged violations occurred in Barry and Stone county portions of Table Rock Lake.

The federal indictment also requests that Nix forfeit to the government all vehicles or equipment used to commit the alleged expenses. This property includes a 20-foot Bumblebee 200 Pro boat and trailer with 225-horsepower Mariner motor, a GPS unit, three gill nets with anchors and a digital scale.

The case against Nix is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven M. Mohlhenrich. It was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The American paddlefish is native to the Mississippi River drainage system and is a close relative of the sturgeon from which most caviar is obtained. As sturgeon populations worldwide are diminishing, American paddlefish have become a popular substitute for sturgeon caviar. The paddlefish is protected by various states in its range, including Missouri and Arkansas.

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