Pillars of Contra Costa caviar? Massive law enforcement operation exposes black market in California delicacy

MARTINEZ — Since November 2020, California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigators have installed GPS trackers on cars, conducted nighttime surveillance, spied on Facebook accounts and traced electronic transactions related to what they describe as an investigation. major on state black caviar. market.

The 18-month effort has paid off: A total of eight people have been arrested this year on suspicion of illegal fishing and other violations, and Contra Costa County prosecutors are preparing to bring criminal charges against several more , according to court records. Authorities have identified people suspected of illegally fishing sturgeon in the Carquinez Strait and Sacramento River, as well as middlemen who buy the eggs, process them into caviar and resell them to under-the-counter customers.

The suspects called the sturgeon eggs “black gold”, and they sold for around $150 a pound – a massive discount from restaurant prices that can go up to $100 an ounce.

Sturgeons are huge bottom-dwelling fish that can live for up to 100 years. They inhabit Carquinez Strait and spawn in the Sacramento River, where humans have fished for them for centuries. The green sturgeon is federally protected and listed as an endangered species, which means it cannot be fished. The white sturgeon is classified as a “species of special concern” due to threats to its spawning grounds.

A single large female sturgeon – the only species of fish capable of producing what is officially labeled “caviar”, can contain tens of pounds of eggs, but state law limits sturgeon anglers to three white sturgeons per year which must measure between 40 and 60 inches. length. Unprocessed eggs can cost around $70 a pound, assuming the eggs are still in good condition.

Black market fishing busts aren’t new to California — Jack London hunted oyster pirates in Carquinez Sound 150 years ago — and caviar busts are no exception. In 2005, nine people were arrested in connection with a similar operation and six California residents were charged with running a Sacramento-based black market caviar ring in 2016.

But authorities say the ring is one of the largest the department has encountered, both in terms of scope, number of jurisdictions involved and other potential criminal activity, including illegal possession of weapons, counterfeit money and £1,000 suspect. illegal cannabis found during a search warrant service last April.

Authorities believe the suspects, including Oakland residents Andrew Chao, 31, and Ay Pou Saechao, 35, illegally fished for at least 36 sturgeon over a two-year period, including a barely alive white sturgeon 85.5 inch found in the trunk of Chao’s golden sedan. during a March 14 traffic stop near the Sacramento River. The fish was returned to the water and survived.

The investigation began with an investigation of two suspected clam poachers in the Sacramento area, and during a review of their Facebook accounts, investigators found conversations about black market caviar deals dating back to 2018. One of the men asked who would be buying sturgeon eggs, noting that he had “at least 100” pounds of a 67-inch sturgeon, according to court records.

The other reportedly answered with the number of a San Francisco man named Yevgeniy Petryanik, 38. Petryanik, along with three other family members, are suspected of processing sturgeon eggs into caviar and selling them for distribution, according to a California department press release. fish and wildlife.

When he was identified as a suspect, CDFW investigators took the rare step of tracking his phone calls and fitting a GPS device to his Chevrolet pickup truck – law enforcement tactics typically reserved for investigating major suspects. drug trafficking networks or organized crime.

In April 2021, authorities tracked Petryanik to San Pablo, where he met a 30-year-old man from Richmond. A fisheries and wildlife warden watched from an unmarked department car as the Richmond man handed over a bucket that appeared to be sturgeon eggs and the two poured a large amount of salt into it, a step in the process drying eggs to make caviar, investigators said in court records.

Custodians then dragged the Chevrolet to San Francisco where the contents were unloaded at Petryanik’s family home, court records show. Two days later, guards conducted surveillance and observed the family during the caviar production process, authorities said.

Next, investigators drafted a search warrant for Petryanik’s Paypal account and found payments of several hundred dollars from suspected caviar customers and suspected illegal fishers, including an Oakland man who handed out $880 for a transaction. Some of the payments contained messages with fish and whale emojis, authorities said.

CDFW said Chao and four members of the Petryanik family face poaching charges. Contra Costa prosecutors are also preparing to bring conspiracy charges against several of the suspects, which will move the case from misdemeanor sturgeon poaching to potentially criminal conduct, authorities say. When police served search warrants in March and made arrests in April, they recovered firearms, including a weapon without a serial number, along with $57,000 in real and counterfeit cash, the report reported. Ministry of Fisheries and Wildlife in a press release. They also collected enough evidence to file “dozens” of trash accounts, investigators said.

“We take this seriously when poachers trade in our wildlife, and we will continue to do all we can to bring these individuals to justice,” said David Bess, CDFW Deputy Director and Chief of the Enforcement Division of CDFW. the law.