A New Jersey man was convicted in federal court today of illegally trafficking in paddlefish caviar after being caught in stemming from an undercover operation in the Warsaw, Missouri, area, announced the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri.
In support of Missouri’s paddlefish conservation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation conducted an undercover investigation known as “Operation Roadhouse,” centered on an area known as the Roadhouse in Warsaw. As part of the operation, state and federal officers operated a paddlefish snagging business during the 2011 and 2012 paddlefish seasons.
Petr Babenko, 45, of Vineland, New Jersey, was found guilty of participating in a conspiracy to illegally buy and sell paddlefish and one count of illegally trafficking in paddlefish in violation of the Lacey Act. Babenko owned European International Foods, a specialty grocery business in Vineland.
Codefendant Bogdan Nahapetyan, 37, an Armenian citizen residing in Lake Ozark, Missouri, pleaded guilty on Nov. 12, 2013, to illegally trafficking in paddlefish.
Neither Babenko nor Nahapetyan had a valid roe fish dealer permit. Evidence introduced during the trial indicated that they possessed paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in excess of the Missouri possession limits and transported the paddlefish and paddlefish eggs across state lines.
For example, on April 24, 2012, Babenko and Nahapetyan negotiated with the undercover investigators to purchase 80 pounds of paddlefish eggs and five female paddlefish for $4,625. While loading the purchased caviar and female paddlefish into their van, they placed an additional order with the undercover investigators for more fish and caviar.
Following the presentation of evidence, the jury in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Missouri, deliberated for about 35 minutes before returning the guilty verdict to U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough, ending a trial that began Aug. 17, 2015.
In separate cases that arose from the undercover investigation, five additional defendants have pleaded guilty to trafficking in paddlefish and paddlefish eggs in violation of the Lacey Act: Fedor Pakhnyuk, 41, of Hinsdale, Illinois, Felix Baravik, 50, and Arkadiy Lvovskiy, 54, both of Aurora, Colorado, Dmitri Elitchev, 49, of Centennial, Colorado, and Artour Magdessian, 48, of Lone Tree, Colorado.
Under federal statutes, Babenko is subject to a sentence of up to ten years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $500,000. Babenko must forfeit to the government a 2011 Mercedes Benz cargo van that was used to commit the offense. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the U.S. Probation Office.
The Lacey Act is a federal statute which makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase fish that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any state, or to attempt to do so. Such conduct constitutes a felony crime if the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct involving the purchase or sale, offer to purchase or sell, or intent to purchase or sell, fish with a market value in excess of $350, knowing that the fish were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of, or in a manner unlawful under, a law or regulation of any state.
The American paddlefish (Polydon spathula), also called the Mississippi paddlefish or the “spoonbill,” is a freshwater fish that is primarily found in the Mississippi River drainage system. Paddlefish eggs are marketed as caviar. The retail value of the caviar is estimated to be between $30,000 and $50,000. Paddlefish were once common in waters throughout the Midwest. However, the global decline in other caviar sources, such as sturgeon, has led to an increased demand for paddlefish caviar. This increased demand has led to over-fishing of paddlefish and consequent decline of the paddlefish population.
Missouri law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs which have been removed or extracted from a paddlefish carcass. Missouri law also prohibits the sale or purchase, or offer of sale or purchase, of paddlefish eggs. There are also several restrictions on the purchase and possession of whole paddlefish in Missouri.
This case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney James B. Nelson of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence E. Miller of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri. It was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation, with assistance by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.