Our Planet
The silvery wash of the moon illuminates the invaders in our garden
Marine conservation is about proper management not numbers
Lion killed California intern with one swipe of its paw, coroner reveals
Deer cull would threaten thousands of jobs, say furious gamekeepers
We must kill Bambi: why culling deer is a no-brainer
Five shark species win protection against finning trade
Pangolins under threat as black market trade grows
Should we learn to love eating insects?
Rare Sumatran tiger kills farmer in Indonesia
Where screeching, scarlet macaws enjoy raucous celebrity status
Summer's early birds risk their return from wintering grounds
Mexican monarch butterfly numbers at record low, scientists say
Military three-step as birds drill for food through the late winter snow
Beachcombers to hunt out 'mermaid's purses' to help protect sharks
French troops return to the heart of D-day operations
A landscape bathed in cold brilliance
Birdwatch: Pied-billed grebe
National Wildlife Crime Unit left in funding doubt
86 elephants killed in Chad poaching massacre
Polar bear hunting and migration 'hit by warming climate'
Cloning extinct animals: to hell with frogs!
Spring is in the air and Zoroastrians and hares and pagans. And me
When the icy wind drops, the first hint of warmth can be felt in the sun
Don't let good zoos go extinct
  Appetite for caviar could see paddlefish suffer sturgeon's fate
Caviar, the glistening black beads that slip down millions of throats globally, is at the centre of a crime saga in the United States. More than 100 people in Missouri have been implicated in an international black market trade in American paddlefish eggs, which can easily masquerade as upmarket caviar.

"There was something going on, we just didn't know how big it was," says Randy Doman, one of the investigators with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Two years of undercover investigation by conservation officials in Missouri, the global "paddlefish capital", exposed the international trade and confirmed a growing shift: as beluga sturgeon the original bearers of coveted caviar have become scarce, illicit traders are turning increasingly to the paddlefish. But it can't afford the attention.

"We knew this was coming," says Phaedra Doukakis, a sturgeon expert affiliated with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. "As sturgeon stocks have been depleted around the world, we knew that paddlefish were next."

The global black market in caviar is estimated to be many times larger than the legal one, fuelled by a love of lavish foods, and thriving despite global protections like wildlife trade convention Cites that try to shield roe-bearing fish. Together with historical overfishing, the trade almost crushed beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, since the fish produces the largest and most expensive roe. Paddlefish, seen as comparatively abundant, are being used to fill the void.

The prehistoric-looking, river-dwelling fish predates dinosaurs, but the world's only remaining populations exist in America, in the broad Mississippi River valley where 11 out of 22 states call it threatened. The Chinese variety, not seen in years, is close to extinction, if not already fished out. The species' long, signature snouts are lined with sensors that detect plankton, allowing them to occupy a niche in the food chain. "It has evolved so little but it's so effective. It's like the perfect design of a fish," says Brent Gordon, paddlefish researcher at the Oklahoma Department of Conservation.

Yet their genetics are also a hindrance. Female paddlefish only mature sexually between eight and ten years old, and spawn every two to three years. They also depend on specific breeding grounds and an ability to migrate that is being undermined by dam construction. But when they do produce eggs, individual females can generate up to 20 pounds. Those eggs are increasingly recognised as the perfect stand-in for fancier, pricier fare.

Doukakis has done genetic sampling that shows paddlefish roe cropping up in the market labelled as more expensive caviar, since the ashy eggs bear a resemblance to the luxury sevruga variety.

Traders also take advantage of consumers that know less about the delicacy, and so will settle for the paddlefish roe's distinctly muddy taste. "A lot of times [poachers] ship the US species out of the country and label it as Russian beluga, and then ship it back into the US, which jacks up the price," explains Edward Grace, an investigator with US Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement.

Higher profits promote illegal trade - and poachers have left their mark in their quest for roe. "They're going out in the middle of the night," says Gordon. "Every fish they get, male or female, they're just cutting them open."

Based on this rising trend, experts treat the sturgeon's scenario as an omen. Over the last 20 years the fish have felt a 90% population decrease, turning them into a poster-species for the damage wrought by an elitist appetite. The International Union for Conservation of Nature now lists it as critically endangered, and Cites has recently made moves to halt the global trade, as it last did in 2006. But the fish are perhaps beyond repair. "There is no rebuilding plan for beluga, unfortunately," Doukakis says.

If paddlefish become the filler for the depleted sturgeon, there's little guarantee they won't head the same way - a tragedy for a creature that's been on this Earth longer than us, Gordon says. The Missouri investigation is ongoing, and details about the upcoming proceedings are scant. Yet Doman hopes the bust has strengthened oversight of the paddlefish, which exists under varying levels of protection across the country. Because of the heist, "there will much better communication amongst states," he reckons.

Many states currently restock rivers with paddlefish bred in hatcheries, which some see as the species' redemption: left to breed naturally, most populations dwindle in the face of water pollution, dams, and poaching. Gordon warns though that hatcheries can't be the key, because they don't harbour diversity the way a river population would. "If you can keep a natural population, you are way better off," he asserts. But wild paddlefish require security, first, to thrive.

Caviar has long been associated with wastefulness and harm. Slowly, things are improving on that front, Doukakis points out. Roe are increasingly coming from reliably farmed sources, and there is better use of the whole fish, instead of the eggs alone.

But where there is an appetite for black gold, there will probably always be an illicit trade that hurts species like the paddlefish. At its heart, "the whole nature of the fishery is unsustainable," Doukakis says. "You know, no one's going to starve if there's no caviar."
Hundreds of wild boars face cull in Forest of Dean
Grand National protesters accuse Channel 4 of exploiting deaths of horses
Kenya's Maasai keep lions at bay with solar power and ingenuity
Week-old baby died after being bitten by jack russell, inquest hears
Avian flu: Chinese pigeon fanciers vaccinate tens of thousands of birds
Art Deco among the ducks
The silent socialisers of the insect world
Firefighters tackle blaze at Scottish zoo
Scottish zoo fire leaves animals and reptiles dead
Upon the Yare three grebe pairs were all in display
Chinese vessel on Philippine coral reef caught with illegal pangolin meat
Stricken seabirds wash up along south coast of England
Circuses to be banned from using wild animals
Demand for lion bones offers South African breeders a lucrative return
Edinburgh zoo pandas 'ready to mate'
Humans that harm animals should be held accountable
Today the brimstones are out, careering up and down the rides
English farmers to be reimbursed for sheep killed in snowstorms
Rhino heads seized in gang raid on Ireland's national museum
On this bright morning, the redwing are looking particularly smart
The Chinese sanctuary with pandas at play
Australia's koala crisis
Edinburgh's female panda artificially inseminated
Scientists attack government climbdown on marine protection
French fisherman survives crocodile attack in Australia
Oxford college under attack over plans to display live shark at ball
Wood anemones bewitched by the wind
Shark's off at Oxford black-tie ball
Appetite for caviar could see paddlefish suffer sturgeon's fate
One day last week something other than water came out of the fountain
China loves pork too much
New to Nature No 100: Eleodes wheeleri
Bollywood actors charged in poaching case
Salisbury travel tips: great bustard birdwatching on the plain
Farewell to Nick Boing, Wales's very own superstar sheep
South African minister backs legalisation of rhino horn trade
Cold spring kills thousands of newborn lambs
Rolling snowballs the size of tumbledriers down the hill
Ranger corruption 'impeding global fight against poaching'
The grey seal's bewhiskered face bore an expression of pure contentment
A new, ethical way to buy fish from the fisherman
Dangerous dogs policy in the wake of the terrible death of Jade Anderson
Red squirrels are intensely curious creatures, and extraordinarily pretty
Freezing weather brings fresh perils for British wildlife
Paparazzi reception for an elusive star of the natural world the otter
Eating fish: it's complicated
Do you think the Grand National is cruel?
Cod and chips could be a load of pollock
Farmers call for help over mounting sheep deaths
Chinese fishing fleet in African waters reports 9% of catch to UN
South African game reserve poisons rhino's horns to prevent poaching
Cats leave their mark on centuries of books
Visit Statistics