By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Conservation officials in Missouri on Friday welcomed the federal charges filed this week against eight people accused of poaching paddlefish and selling their eggs as caviar.
A multi-year investigation into the poaching of the protected species culminated on Thursday in the indictment of eight people on charges they trafficked in fish and fish eggs taken illegally from Missouri lakes and streams, according to the federal complaint.
Missouri state law prohibits the transportation of paddlefish eggs that have been removed or extracted from a paddlefish carcass.
State law also prohibits the sale or purchase, or offer of sale or purchase, of paddlefish eggs and restricts the purchase of whole paddlefish.
The American paddlefish, also known as the "spoonbill," is one of the largest species of freshwater fish in North America, and has suffered severe population declines over the past century. Many states now list it as endangered, threatened or a species of special concern.
"It's a unique resource and we need to protect it," conservation department regional supervisor Nick Laposha said on Friday.
"The national and international popularity of Missouri paddlefish eggs as a source of caviar has grown dramatically in recent years," Larry Yamnitz, resource protection chief for the conservation department, said in a news release.
The eight men indicted were charged with violating the Lacey Act, a federal statute that prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken and transported or sold in violation of state law.
The defendants face penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count if convicted. They were charged in four separate indictments for offenses said to have occurred in 2011 and 2012.
(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Peter Cooney)