By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
EVERETT — An undercover operation in Snohomish County by state fish and wildlife agents has netted two men with suspected ties to an international fish-poaching ring.
The men are accused of illegally selling caviar, steelhead and salmon. One of the men admitted to illegally “snagging” at least 100 pounds of steelhead, prosecutors said. The men were charged on Tuesday with unlawful trafficking of fish, a felony.
“It’s bad enough when they’re stealing by harvesting illegally. They’ve added to the egregiousness by then making a profit,” said Mike Cenci, a marine patrol captain with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Agents say the men are believed to be connected to a fish-poaching ring that was operating out of several other states. Earlier this year, eight men were indicted in Missouri on federal charges for poaching and trafficking in American paddlefish and their eggs. More than 100 other people were arrested or cited for their part in illegally selling Missouri paddlefish to national and international caviar markets.
American paddlefish, also known as spoonbills, are native to the Mississippi River watershed. The prehistoric fish can live for decades, weigh up 160 pounds and reach seven feet long. Criminals sell eggs from the boneless fish as higher-quality caviar.
“Paddlefish are often sold under the guise of sturgeon,” Cenci said.
With a decline in the highly-sought-after and expensive sturgeon roe, paddlefish eggs have gained popularity. The increase in demand has led to a decline in the paddlefish population, according to federal fish and wildlife agents. Chinese paddlefish, once plentiful in the Yangtze River, are believed to be almost extinct.
Authorities allege that Igor Stepchuk, 38, of Lynnwood, sold an undercover agent five jars of American paddlefish eggs for $500. He also is accused of illegally selling steelhead, and coho and chinook salmon.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife began investigating Stepchuk after receiving a tip in 2011 that he was trafficking illegal caviar. The agent met with Stepchuk numerous times. His friend Oleg Morozov, of Kent, also is accused of trafficking fish.
Stepchuk, a convicted felon, eventually offered to sell the agent steelhead, court papers said. He reportedly told the agent he had poached about 100 pounds of steelhead. It isn’t clear where he caught them. He reportedly showed the agent a freezer full of fish.
Non-tribal fishermen are banned from selling steelhead. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing also is heavily regulated.
Cenci said it’s also illegal to catch fish by snagging, which often means dragging a hook through the water and impaling the fish, rather than waiting for a fish to bite.
“It’s offensive to sportsmen and sportswomen. It’s a matter of ethics,” Cenci said.
The defendants reportedly went on to sell the undercover agent more than a dozen jars of caviar and more steelhead. In total, the men charged the agent more than $4,500 for the fish and eggs.
Detectives sent samples of the caviar and fish to the department’s molecular genetics laboratory to confirm the species. The lab is used primarily to help manage wildlife and fish resources, but enforcement agents use the facility to assist with criminal investigations. DNA testing was done, and the samples were consistent with steelhead and chinook and coho salmon, court records said.
“That kind of activity has a great impact when you’re dealing with endangered salmon runs,” Cenci said.
Bob Heirman, conservationist and longtime secretary-treasurer for the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club, has been planting salmon and trout in Snohomish County for decades.
Poachers are “robbing resources while some people are trying to recover them,” Heirman said.
Stepchuk and Morozov are expected to answer to the charges later this month in Snohomish County Superior Court.
Unfortunately, the state’s fish and wildlife species often find their way to illegal national and international markets, Cenci said. “We’ve seen everything poached from roe to bear gallbladders,” he said.
He encourages seafood eaters to make sure they are buying from licensed and legitimate sellers. “If there aren’t people willing to buy (illegal products) the incentive to poach for profit goes away,” Cenci said.