Extensive white sturgeon poaching operation revealed

An investigation into a series of sturgeon poaching incidents has identified more than a dozen suspects — and uncovered one of the largest black market caviar rings in California history. The poaching investigation began in January 2022, when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) began monitoring two men named Andrew Chao and Ay Pou Saechao of Oakland, California. They allegedly worked with several other hunters to take up to 36 white sturgeon from Sacramento Valley waterways.

Native to the West Coast, the white sturgeon is considered the largest freshwater fish in North America, according to the CDFW — which considers them a “species of special concern.” They usually migrate between saltwater bays and estuaries and large rivers and deltas. The white block can grow up to 20 feet tall, weigh more than 1,000 pounds, and live for 100 years or more. Golden State anglers are only allowed three fish per year with a daily limit of one fish. There is also a strict spacing limit between 40 and 60 inches.

white sturgeon swimming
The white sturgeon is considered the largest freshwater fish in North America. ODFW

Throughout the course of their surveillance efforts—which included nighttime stakeouts, Facebook and GPS monitoring, and wiretapping of transactions—CDFW officers discovered that Chao and Saechao were targeting white sturgeon for their eggs.

The white block usually produces about 5,600 eggs per kilogram of body weight, which means that the average female can carry approximately 200,000 eggs. Chao and Saechao were suspected of selling illegally harvested sturgeon roe to members of the San Francisco-based Petryanik family, who processed the fish eggs for caviar that they then sold on the black market. Black market caviar can fetch up to $150 per pound, according to East Bay Times.

The first arrest involved a large live sturgeon

white sturgeon on the back of the car
The block got stuck in the back of a sedan. CDFW

The first arrest in the month-long investigation came in March, when Chao was pulled over by CDFW agents with a giant sturgeon lodged in the trunk of his car. “On March 14, officers conducted a traffic stop and located an 85.5-inch white sturgeon in the back of Chao’s vehicle,” a CDFW news release states. “Chao was arrested on additional charges of conspiracy to poach and possession of a large blizzard. The fish was still alive and officers successfully returned it to the water after quickly taking photos of the evidence.”

With Chao in custody, officers arrested Saechao and seven other suspected sturgeon poachers. Subsequent search warrants for these individuals turned up five illegally possessed deer, several balloons, five illegal firearms, $57,000 in cash and counterfeit money, 1,000 pounds of illegal cannabis, and a ‘phantom gun’ without serial number.

fish and game officers pose with sturgeon in the bed of the truck
The 91-in was released safely. CDFW

During the investigation, officials closely watched the activities of 38-year-old Yevgeniy Petriyanik. CDFW monitored Petriyanik’s cell phone, placed a GPS tracking device in his pickup truck, and eventually observed him purchasing a bucket of sturgeon roe, which he took home and processed into caviar with the help of family members. A search warrant for the Petryanik family’s Paypal account revealed several hundred dollars worth of illegal caviar sales allegedly indicated by fish and whale emojis.

Read further: Make sure you’re legit before flaunting (or killing) your catch

All members of the poaching ring and the four Petriyaniks who helped process the white sturgeon are facing poaching charges in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Court records recently cited by East Bay Times show that prosecutors have filed new charges that will elevate misdemeanor sturgeon poaching charges to felony status for some of the defendants.

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