Wildlife Dept. ends once-lucrative caviar program
After 15 years, Paddlefish Research Center will no longer process paddlefish for anglers
By KELLY BOSTIAN
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is officially out of the caviar business.
With the approval of the department’s 2023 budget on Monday, the eight-member Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission officially ended the once lucrative practice. However, officials say turning to federal-match funding will not only allow for continued but expanded non-game fisheries research.
The Paddlefish Research Center near Miami, where anglers lined up to donate the innards of their fish to the Department for research and caviar in exchange for processed and neatly bagged fillets for dinner, and livers for catfish bait, now will serve as a regional office, storage, and, eventually, a laboratory or other use, according to department officials.
While caviar no longer provided million-dollar windfalls that bolstered the program, enforcement against poachers, and research, senior fisheries biologist Jason Schooley said the 15 years since biologists processed the first three fish on Feb. 23, 2008, should be logged as a great success.
“The miscommunication that likely will happen is this is some kind of failure, and that’s not the case,” he said.
Schooley said that work at the research center marks the most complete and influential research on any paddlefish population in the country. Impressive numbers along the way include the training of 115 interns from 16 different universities, processing over 47,000 paddlefish, which totaled about 1.7 million pounds of fish, distributing 375,000 pounds of fillets to anglers, and 15,000 bags of paddlefish livers for catfish bait.
Caviar market downturn
According to Fisheries Division Chief Ken Cunningham, China’s development of caviar from hatchery-raised sturgeon turned the international caviar market on its head in recent years. Japanese markets took most of Oklahoma’s caviar, he said
Fisheries Division figures shared with the Commission’s finance committee showed the swings of weather and angler success and the markets. The Center’s biggest revenue year was 2012, with $3.3 million earned on 17,683 pounds of caviar.
Production in the first ten years ranged widely from 8,000 to 19,000 pounds of caviar. The 2012 revenue was a marked outlier, but four other years saw $1.5 to $2 million, and three more saw around $1.2 million.
In recent years production was in the range of 3,000 to 7,000 pounds, with revenue numbers mostly between $350,000 and $450,000.
Schooley said Federal Sportfish Restoration matching funds are issued only to state-financed programs. Because caviar sales funded the Research Center, it was not eligible for federal funding, which often comes with a three-to-one match.
Oklahoma lists paddlefish as “non-game” species by statute because snagging is the only method to catch the fish, which are plankton eaters. Snagging is illegal for traditional sport fishing. But thousands of Oklahomans and non-resident anglers worldwide go to great lengths for the chance to snag one of the big, prehistoric fish.
“There is no question paddlefish represent a huge sport-fishing opportunity even if they are non-game,” Schooley said.
Expanded research, federal funds
He said the new funding model allows biologists to do more research using fewer fishing license dollars. The Wildlife Department uses no state tax money. It is a non-appropriated agency funded on a user-pay/user-benefit basis.
“The program was 100 percent state funding,” he said. “Now, if we use state funds differently, rather than for creating caviar, those funds can effectively quadruple funding through the Sportfish Restoration match.”
Staff will increase, he said. Former Research Center supervisor Brandon Brown has transferred to a supervisory position in the Southeast Region. Schooley and Paddlefish Biologist Colby Gainer will continue to research paddlefish and other non-game species with the aid of two new technician positions, he said.
“This is a great opportunity for us to continue what we’re doing, and we’ve made pretty amazing strides for managing a non-game species. We have a 15-year dataset that rivals that of most game species,” he said.
He said they would focus on paddlefish, buffalo, shovelnose sturgeon, and American eel research statewide.
“Basically, it means we are no longer tied to that one building for two months of the year when the peak of paddlefish activity is happening statewide,” he said.
Biologists will continue monitoring the Grand Lake and Neosho River population, including the Fort Gibson Lake tailwater, but will learn more about paddlefish in the Arkansas River from Keystone Lake to the Kaw Reservoir tailwater and the more recently restored populations in the Verdigris River and Oologah Lake, and Lake Eufaula, he said.
The Oklahoma Ecology Project is a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on Oklahoma’s conservation and environmental issues. Learn more at okecology.org