As the legal battle continues over how to manage the Missouri River, there is another problem lurking in the muddy waters.
A potential ban on commercial fishing of shovelnose sturgeon in Missouri is raising differences between commercial fishermen and the Missouri Department of Conservation. The issue turns on global demand for caviar, a delicacy that is increasingly harvested from shovelnose sturgeon, which live in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Sturgeon in the Caspian Sea once supplied 90 percent of the world’s caviar. But those populations have collapsed under the pressure of illegal and unregulated harvests, putting enormous pressure on North America to supply caviar to the rest of the world.
“The caviar industry is targeting our shovelnose sturgeon for a major worldwide source of caviar,” said Craig Gemming, a fisheries biologist for the state conservation department. “As a result we have seen our harvest of shovelnose in Missouri skyrocket, especially over the past four or five years.”
From 1998 to 2001, the harvest of shovelnose sturgeon increased more than 1,000 percent on the Mississippi River, Gemming said. In the past six years, sampling done by the department shows the catch rate of the shovelnose has declined from 26 fish per gill net day to less than one fish per gill net day at sites on the Mississippi River.
“We’re concerned that now that the abundance of the shovelnose is low in the Mississippi, commercial fishermen will move up the Missouri River and take advantage of the fish there,” Gemming said.
All states on the Missouri River except Missouri and Iowa have already banned commercial fishing of shovelnose. On the Mississippi River, three states have banned commercial shovelnose fishing: Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. Missouri might be next.
“We are considering a ban right now,” Gemming said. “It won’t be anything immediate. We have to talk to commercial fishermen, but it might end up that the ban may be the only way to go.”
The conservation department is looking at alternatives such as a season limit, limiting fishing time or possibly putting a quota on the number of shovelnose that fishermen can take. Agency representatives are meeting and discussing options with commercial fishermen to find a solution to the shovelnose problem.
Edwin Nichols, a commercial fisherman from Hartsburg, has met with conservation officials and said he thinks they are jumping the gun with discussion of a ban. “They don’t have the numbers to prove it,” Nichols said. “The numbers I see are always going up. You can talk to any commercial fisherman, and the number of shovelnose sturgeon that they catch on the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers are always up.”
Nichols said he has caught as many as 3,500 shovelnose a day on the Missouri River. He thinks the department is fearful that more and more people are going to come in and start fishing the Missouri.
“If it is bad, then they need to shut it down because we are depleting a natural resource,” Nichols said. “But we don’t know the numbers that well, and the number of shovelnose on the Missouri River are not down.”
Gemming said the reason that shovelnose are still fairly abundant on the Missouri River is that most of the commercial fishing for shovelnose takes place on the Mississippi. Gemming estimates that there are 10 to 12 commercial fishermen on the Missouri River at this time and only a few fish full time.
A 14-ounce can of shovelnose sturgeon caviar sells, on average, for $220, Gemming said. The average female shovelnose sturgeon weighs three to five pounds and can produce one-fourth to one-third pound of roe if she is spawning, which only occurs every two to three years. It takes three to four shovelnose to produce one 14-ounce can of caviar.
At these prices, some fishermen are taking shovelnose as well as pallid sturgeon for their roe. Gemming’s concern lies in the fact that the pallid sturgeon and the lake sturgeon have both become endangered because they were overharvested.
The shovelnose and pallid sturgeon are similar in appearance, and inexperienced fishermen might not know the difference. Gemming said that with the price of caviar, some unscrupulous fishermen don’t care which species they catch.
For experienced fisherman, it’s not difficult to tell the difference. Vince Travnichek, a conservation research biologist, said, “I’m confident that our commercial fishermen that fish for caviar and make a living out of it can tell the difference.”
The shovelnose sturgeon has a flattened, shovel-shaped snout. It also has scales on the belly, which the pallid lacks. The shovelnose only weighs three to five pounds; pallids can reach up to 6 feet in length and weigh up to 65 to 80 pounds.
“What we’re interested in the most is trying to protect shovelnose sturgeon extinction,” Gemming said. “Somehow we’re going to come up with more restrictive regulations than we have now because they’re not working.”