Former Shell Knob area man is sentenced in illegal cavier case

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A former Shell Knob, man will serve one year and one day in federal prison for illegally harvesting paddlefish eggs at Table Rock Lake. The eggs were caught in illegal nets and processed into caviar, which was sold to a Tennessee company.

Thomas Jerry Nix, Jr., 39, of Memphis, Tenn., formerly of Shell Knob, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Ortrie D. Smith on Feb. 2 in federal court in Springfield. The court also ordered Nix to pay $30,002 in restitution to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

As a result of his arrest and conviction, Nix will forfeit to the government a 20-foot Bumblebee 200 Pro boat and trailer as well as a 225 HP Mariner motor, a GPS unit, three gill nets with anchors and a digital scale. All of the forfeited items were used by Nix to commit the offense.

In September of 2008, Nix pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to engage in illegal commercial fishing for American paddlefish on Table Rock Lake and to illegally take paddlefish eggs, called roe, and process them into caviar. Nix also admitted that he transported and sold the caviar in interstate commerce from December of 2007 to February of 2008.

According to court reports, Nix set three gill nets on Table Rock Lake and used a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to mark the location of the nets. Every one to three days thereafter, Nix and his co-conspirator returned to check the gill nets for paddlefish.

When paddlefish were retrieved from the gill nets, Nix slit open each paddlefish suspected to contain eggs and extracted them from the paddlefish by hand. They sealed the eggs in plastic bags and transported them to Nix's residence in Shell Knob. As the paddlefish moved upstream, Nix relocated the gill nets. In attempt to conceal their scheme, Nix and his accomplice sank the carcasses of the paddlefish they killed by weighting them with rocks.

Periodically, Nix and his co-conspirator transported the processed paddlefish caviar from Shell Knob to three separate locations in Tennessee, where it was sold to a company engaged in the business of buying, processing and selling caviar. Between Jan. 11 and Feb. 11, 2008, Nix sold approximately 387 pounds of paddlefish caviar to the firm for a total of $35,820.

Nix was finally apprehended on the night of Feb. 17, 2008, when agents of the MDC and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service stopped Nix as he returned from fishing on Table Rock Lake. Agents found that Nix was in possession of 78.3 pounds of unprocessed paddlefish eggs, which Nix admitted was taken illegally.

Upon a search of Nix's residence in Shell Knob, officers discovered over 90 pounds of additional paddlefish roe that was labeled and ready to be sold. On Feb. 18, 2008, Nix led agents to three gill nets in Table Rock Lake. Upon their retrieval, agents were able to release 17 live paddlefish caught in the nets.

Missouri law makes it illegal to use gill nets for sport fishing, and in Nix's case, the paddlefish he was killing were taken out of season. Nix was also guilty of engaging in commercial fishing without a commercial license.

Nix also violated federal regulations that prohibit commercial activities on Table Rock Lake without the permission of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which the defendant did not have. In addition, paddlefish roe is subject to USDA regulations, and improperly processed paddlefish roe is subject to contamination by botulinum brucella and listeria monocyteogenes.

The case against Nix was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven M. Mohlhenrich and investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the MDC.

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