Oklahoma Caviar Headed To Stores

Friday, March 21st 2008, 6:53 pm
By: News On 6

Soon there will be some Oklahoma Caviar on the market.  It's the byproduct of a research program into the Spoonbill Catfish, what some people call the paddlefish. The News On 6's Emory Bryan reports the caviar will pay for the research.

It's an extremely valuable product that led to poaching of the paddlefish.  The state came up with an idea to protect the fish and harvest the caviar by making a deal with fishermen, bring us your fish and we'll clean them for free.

Some came with their daily limit of one and some boats came loaded with them.  It's the middle of the spawning run for the Spoonbill Catfish and fishermen from all over the country were there for the challenge.

"They're coming to catch it for the fun, but they also want the meat," said Keith Green, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife.

The spoonbill is a fish that hasn't changed much since prehistoric times and while it can grow past 100 pounds, the average catch is about 40 pounds.  That turns into five pounds of fillet, but the real catch is the 10 pounds of black caviar, which is worth, at wholesale $1,000.

That's one reason the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife set up a processing center at Twin Bridges State Park.

"Most of it was being wasted, it was a wasted resource," said Brent Gordon, Fisheries Biologist.

Gordon started studying the spoonbill 18 years ago, but his research was limited by the number of fish he could catch.

Now, fishermen bring them in and in exchange, they're cleaned and filleted for free.

"This is the greatest thing I've seen, I'll tell you that, yeah, this is really good," said Jim Wagner, Fishing Guide.

Just a month into the pilot program, it's popular enough that fishermen are lined up to drop off their catch.  If it's successful, it's going to be expanded, and Lake Fort Gibson is next.

With fishermen doing the catching, biologists are happy to do the cleaning because that's how they get the information they need.

The caviar is so valuable; it's enough to pay for the whole operation.

"We've had three buyers here from the U.S. and one from Japan looking at the eggs and they all want to buy them, so we've got a really good market," said Green.

In years past, it cost a quarter of a million dollars to protect the spoonbill from poachers.  Now the equation has changed and the fishermen have a stake in the effort to protect them.

The state doesn't know how much they'll get for the caviar, but they're putting in cold storage while buyers are bidding on what it harvested.

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