Sturgeon roe donated to the state isn't supposed to be sold, but some fish eggs were allegedly given to processors in exchange for tins of caviar.

By Jelisa Castrodale
February 19, 2021
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Until this year, Wisconsin biologist Ryan P. Koenigs oversaw the state's annual sturgeon-spearing season at Lake Winnebago and, during his decade-plus with the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), he picked up the nickname "The Sturgeon General." The winter spearing season officially opened last Saturday, but Koenigs had no part in it, not after his high-profile arrest last week.

According to the Associated Press, sturgeon spearers are allowed to keep any of the valuable (and delicious) roe that accompany their catch, but they are not allowed to sell it. Some fishermen will donate sturgeon roe to the State DNR, and the eggs that aren't used for research must either be returned to the fisherman or destroyed. State biologists aren't allowed to, say, give the leftover roe to a local processor in exchange for finished jars of sturgeon caviar—which is exactly what Koenigs has been accused of doing.

Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI / Staff/Getty Images

In 2017, the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began investigating allegations that DNR employees had been selling or trading sturgeon roe, and Koenigs was interviewed as part of that investigation last January. He allegedly stated that, yes, the DNR accepted donated sturgeon eggs, but they were used in a fish-related fertility study. After the department completed its research, he said that the eggs were returned to the fishermen. Investigators asked why, if that was the case, some registration station workers had been seen putting the eggs in a cooler that had been labeled with the name of a caviar processor?

Koenigs said obviously that shouldn't be happening, and he said that he had never been in contact with that particular caviar processor. When he was presented with his own phone records that suggested otherwise, Koenigs then acknowledged the call, but said he "didn't know what he and the processor discussed, but that he was sure it wasn't sturgeon eggs."

The AP reports that, last week, Koenigs' story changed, and he told investigators that the staff did take some sturgeon eggs to caviar processors and that they accepted "20 to 30 jars of caviar annually" in exchange. One former fisheries department supervisor said that some of the caviar was given to local bars to serve, and some of it was eaten during team meetings (which beats the heck out of Bagel Fridays).

According to a legal complaint, Koenig's previous denials and false accounts added "hundreds of hours" to an investigation that "could have been dramatically shortened" if he'd been honest from the start. Four people were arrested last week, including Koenigs; the "Sturgeon General" has been charged with one count of misdemeanor theft for illegally trading sturgeon eggs and one count of obstructing a conservation warden. He has also since been placed on administrative leave by the DNR.

This year's sturgeon spearing season will last for 16 days, or until the "sex-specific harvest caps" are reached.