American Paddlefish: Freshwater Species of the Week

While one could make a case that pigs should be this week’s Freshwater Species of the Week, since they have turned up by the thousands in a Chinese river, I decided to focus my attention a bit closer to home. Today, authorities announced that eight men have been indicted for alleged trafficking in American paddlefish caviar.

One of the men had allegedly tried to smuggle paddlefish eggs in his checked luggage on an international flight from Washington, DC.

The investigation was a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation. The Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri announced four indictments against the men for alleged acts in 2011 and 2012.

freshwater species of the week

“Illegal wildlife trafficking doesn’t just involve rhinos, elephants, and other foreign species under siege; it’s a threat to U.S. resources as well,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.  “We are working with our state and federal partners to ensure that the American paddlefish doesn’t end up on the federal Endangered Species List because of the black market caviar trade.”

The eight men are charged with violating the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits trade in wildlife that had been handled in violation of state law. (Missouri prohibits sale or purchase of paddlefish eggs or transporting eggs that have been removed from a paddlefish.)

American paddlefish (Polydon spathula) are ancient fish that resemble their cousins the sturgeon.  They live in slow-flowing waters of the Mississippi River drainage system, where they can grow to a size of seven feet (220 cm) and weight up to 220 pounds (100 kg). They are also called Mississippi paddlefish, spoonbill, spoonbill catfish, or even spoonies.

The paddlefish’s snout can be up to one third its total length. It is covered in electroreceptors that scientists think might help it find plankton, its favorite food.

Like sturgeon, paddlefish once plied rivers in great numbers, but they were heavily overfished for their meat and eggs. Dams also restricted their habitat. Now, they are listed as endangered, threatened, or a species of special concern in 11 states.

All sturgeon and paddlefish are also listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which restricts international trade. 

If convicted, the defendants in the case could get five years in jail and a $250,000 fine per count, plus forfeiture of any vehicles used in the crimes.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.