*This report has been updated to include a photo gallery.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS — It is barely 6:30 a.m. on Friday, and Bruce Drecktrah is on the water.
He is here with two fellow snaggers, Terry Timmons and Stan Frank. They are the first of many on this April morning to drag fist-sized hooks through the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks, hoping to snag the American paddlefish, a Missouri relic.
They raced the sun from Columbia to the Wigwam School access point. In the cold air, they bundle and prepare for the task at hand. On the boat ramp is Franks’ red, four-door pickup with a boat trailer attached. They coax the 10-foot boat into the reservoir.
As calls of geese echo through the stillness of morning, the men climb aboard the sputtering boat.
The paddlefish survived for millions of years in Missouri rivers. Its presence in Missouri waters and throughout the country has sharply declined in the last century from an irreversibly changing habitat, poaching and overfishing. These pressures are only increasing, and Missouri’s state aquatic animal is hanging on by a thread. In the state, much of its survival depends on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s hatchery.
Off the boat, Drecktrah works for the conservation department as a field division chief and has worked with paddlefish for more than 20 years. Before accepting his current job, he managed the Blind Pony Hatchery, the same hatchery that stocks these fish.
Capable of weighing more than 100 pounds, the paddlefish is “a dinosaur-type fish,” Drecktrah said. “It goes back to millions of years ago and how the fish looked then.”
Essentially unchanged since prehistory, the paddlefish has a giant paddle-like snout, or rostrum. Usually one-third the length of the fish, the rostrum helps the paddlefish find the microscopic organisms, called zooplankton, it feeds on.
As filter feeders, paddlefish have gills designed to strain zooplankton continuously. Mouths open, they indiscriminately rake the water for zooplankton as they swim through the water column. Studies have shown that the rostrum has receptors sensitive to electric fields that concentrations of zooplankton give off. This allows paddlefish to use their rostrum as an antenna to locate their tiny prey.
For millions of years, paddlefish — also known as spoonbill — have relied on rivers with shallow pools and rocky bottoms for spawning. The female releases a sticky adhesive that allows the eggs to cling to gravel in the swaying currents. Not only does water height and flow need to be just right, but the water also must be a particular temperature — from 52 to 60 degrees — to initiate spawning.
Dam construction and dredging have significantly limited the spawning ground in Missouri reservoirs. It takes nearly a decade before a female paddlefish is able to reproduce, and about seven years before a male can. If the conditions aren’t right, the fish may forgo spawning that year.
Poaching and the demand for caviar
Over the turn of the last century, caviar connoisseurs have begun to rely heavily on paddlefish for caviar. Demand for the product has increased as the beluga sturgeon, formerly the fish most used for caviar, has been overfished.
“All the sturgeon stocks around the world have been depleted,” Dennis Scarnecchia, professor of fisheries at the University of Idaho, said. Additionally, the Chinese paddlefish is thought to be extinct since 2007. Management of the world’s giant fish has failed. Simply put, the fish cannot sustain high harvest rates.
“Sturgeon are especially abysmal, but the fact that some paddlefish are still around shows there is some management,” he said. How much of their survival is linked to management or to reservoir rearing, Scarnecchia said he doesn’t know.
This time last year, the conservation department’s protection division and federal agents worked together on an undercover investigation to catch individuals poaching in Warsaw. Operation Roadhouse resulted in the arrest of eight people for interstate and international trafficking of paddlefish caviar and 245 citations for 122 others.
“Those eight people were the ones purchasing paddlefish from local fishers, going to a motel to extract the eggs and process them, and then crossing state lines,” a special investigations field agent said.
The poachers took eggs as far as New Jersey, a violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the transport of fish, wildlife or any of their parts across state lines. A large female paddlefish can produce upwards of 15 pounds of eggs. Sold on the black market for anywhere from $20 to $35 per ounce, a single paddlefish’s roe could sell for $4,000.
Steve Kahrs, who co-owns Osage Catfisheries with his brother Pete Kahrs, has been in the paddlefish caviar business since the 1980s. The business was passed down to them from their late father.
Their company is the only one in the U.S. that rears paddlefish. They even have their own paddlefish bloodline, with genes different from those in the wild, from which they harvest caviar. Most of the export is overseas to Russia and Asia, Kahrs explained. And with current market prices, Kahrs makes roughly $175 per pound of caviar, he said. That’s about $11 per ounce.
The conservation department requires several permits for commercial fisheries. In addition to a permit allowing the fishing of any commercial species, if they intend to harvest roe, or fish eggs, to make caviar, they also need a roe fish harvest permit.
In Missouri, there are only three rivers that are considered roe-harvestable waterways for businesses: the Missouri, Mississippi and St. Francis rivers. Fishing for roe is limited to the Mississippi River. Ten states border the Mississippi River, and each has its own regulations on commercial fishing. Managing paddlefish populations and preventing overfishing is a challenge the conservation department faces.
Trying to manage a migratory fish population across state borders is complicated, to say the least, said Joe McMullin, a big river specialist with the conservation department.
“It is something that we beat our heads against,” he said. “As conservationists, we want to do what is best for the fish, but there are obviously other interests, and it can be fairly political.”
Although there are attempts among the states to reach agreement on how to manage paddlefish, little progress has been made on a national approach. McMullin describes the Mississippi River as a “patchwork of regulations,” changing as the current moves along the river.
“It’s a hurdle we haven’t been able to clear,” he said.
At the most basic level, a commercial fisher who is a resident of Missouri will spend $1,025 on a commercial fishing license, a roe fishing permit and a dealer permit; a non-resident will spend $7,000. These steep prices are part of why an illegal market developed in Missouri around the reservoirs.
Poaching, however, is a smaller concern for Kahrs. He is more concerned with the new management program in Oklahoma that he said has cut into his business’s profits.
“The program in Oklahoma is much worse than what poachers could ever do,” he said. “States shouldn’t be able to take business away from private companies.”
Models of management
Oklahoma changed its paddlefish management in the last few years, Scarnecchia said. “If a snagger is interested, the state will clean the fish for the fisher, and if it is a female, process the eggs as caviar and sell it legally, generating revenue for the state,” he said.
Scarnecchia, who works with paddlefish management programs in Oklahoma, Montana and North Dakota, believes that approach is a potential solution to funding limitations because it effectively manages a state’s resources. Rather than throwing the valuable caviar out, as most fisherman do, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation sells it.
The proceeds go back into resource management, and as a result of their interactions with fishers, the state has developed the best data sets on paddlefish anywhere, Scarnecchia said.
Drecktrah said the Missouri Department of Conservation has considered a similar management model but decided against it. Missouri paddlefish management is primarily focused on providing the best sport fishery.
“They are some of America's truly irreplaceable fish,” Scarnecchia said. “I think (the fish) needs more effective management and attention than they’ve gotten.”
Restocking the reservoirs
The Lake of the Ozarks was created in 1929 when Bagnell Dam was built on the Osage River. Conservationists knew back then that they would need to create a paddlefish management program. With the construction of the Truman Reservoir, the paddlefish effectively lost its spawning ground. As a result, the conservation department has been spawning and raising thousands of paddlefish since the early 1970s at the Blind Pony Hatchery in Sweet Springs.
“As a rule, on a normal year, the reservoirs Truman and Lake of the Ozarks will get 15,000 each. Table Rock will get 7,500,” Drecktrah said. “Then we are actually putting some on the Black River in southeast Missouri, and they get 500.”
Conservationists debate whether paddlefish reproduce naturally at all in these reservoirs, but there is little evidence. It is the general consensus, however, that without the work at Blind Pony Hatchery, this fish would disappear from many bodies of water in Missouri, Drecktrah said.
Scarnecchia said the worry with hatcheries, such as Blind Pony, is paddlefish will become domesticated and depend on them. Although paddlefish can be raised in hatcheries, it’s not a good long-term solution, he said.
“You want it to be a wild species, and that depends on whether we can have natural reproduction out there,” he said.
At Blind Pony, four 800-gallon tanks each hold both a male and a female paddlefish collected from the reservoirs, hatchery manager Jake Colehour said.
Conservationists begin the spawning process at 8 a.m. by first harvesting sperm from each male. Two men, dressed in waders and boots, hop into the tank and begin corralling the male paddlefish. They use the side of the tank to help pin the fish and flip him over, underside exposed. A third worker comes around with a cloth to clean the underbelly and then insert a syringe where the male would naturally release his sperm. On average, they collect two 10-milliliter syringes of sperm from each male. After doing this with all four males, they examine the sperm samples under a microscope.
Through the lens of the microscope, the sample initially looks like a faint abstract pattern. Once a droplet of water is added, the pattern begins to wiggle in what seems like millions of places, signaling that the sperm are alive and healthy.
The next step is the collection of eggs from the female paddlefish. In the same way, the female paddlefish are restrained, an employee applies pressure and the eggs ooze out. Once eggs have been collected from the four females and put into a container, an employee uses an eyedropper to add a few drops of sperm.
With a feather in hand, Trish Yasger, a paddlefish biologist, waits for one of the hatchery employees to pour water into the bowl. Using the feather, she stirs for 30 minutes to mimic the gentle movements of shallow water currents.
In a week’s time, the eggs will hatch and the baby fish, or fry, will grow in tubs of water at the hatchery. Later, they are moved to one of Blind Pony’s 39 11.5-acre ponds, where they will continue to grow until it is time for the reservoirs to be restocked. This group of paddlefish will become known as the “2014 class.” Each year, a new class of paddlefish is released into the reservoirs.
In 2012, the number of individual permit holders for fishing in the state was more than 800,000. Although there is no way to determine how many of those people are snagging paddlefish, Yasger said the snaggers are economically beneficial for the state.
In many ways, the arrival of paddlefish snaggers is a ritualistic welcome of spring. For those who enjoy the sport of snagging, the season goes by too quickly. It runs six weeks, from March 15 until April 30.
Over the course of three hours at the Lake of the Ozarks ramp, dozens of boats are on the water, but by this time, six paddlefish, each at least 34 inches long from the eye to the fork of the tail, lie nearly still in the stern of Drecktrah’s boat, occasionally flopping weakly. Each man has snagged two paddlefish, the most they may legally catch on the reservoirs.
When they arrive at the dock and prepare to leave, their impressive catch lures in other fisherman who didn’t have the same luck. The men joke about using special bait, as they point toward the horizon where they were snagging, but it goes without saying that they all really know, “…you just throw it out there and hope.”
Supervising editor is Sara Shipley Hiles, who worked with Christine Coester on this story in her Science, Health and Environmental Writing class at the Missouri School of Journalism.