GRAND LAKE — A fishing operation on Grand Lake is netting the state Department of Wildlife Conservation more than $1 million a year in caviar sales.
The Paddlefish Research Center sold 15,000 pounds of caviar in 2012, raking in $1.5 million dollars, said Brent Gordon, paddlefish research supervisor.
“Those raw eggs are converted into a high-quality, ready-to-eat, finished product, which is sold on the international market,” Gordon said.
The Wildlife Department oversees the Paddlefish Research Center near Twin Bridges State Park, between Fairland and Wyandotte in rural Ottawa County. The center processes the caviar on-site in March and April and collects data to assist biologists in managing the paddlefish population, he said.
It began selling caviar in 2008 to specialized overseas businesses that sell the product to restaurants and other food outlets.
“We sell 500 pounds at a time,” Gordon said. “Most of Oklahoma's paddlefish caviar is consumed in Europe and Japan.”
Gordon said paddlefish caviar typically sells for $180 a pound, although it's illegal for individuals to sell it. The more widely known Beluga caviar sells for $200 to $300 per ounce.
From those Oklahoma caviar sales, $400,000 is spent on running the center, $300,000 is spent on research and $500,000 on law enforcement, he said. The agency has made several arrests in connection with black-market caviar.
“Back in the 1990s, black-market caviar was selling for $32 a pound,” Gordon said.
Gordon, who has been studying paddlefish since 1990, said the species is plentiful in Grand Lake and in lakes and streams in the Miami area. Those who catch the paddlefish — commonly called spoonbills — can turn them over to the agency, which cleans the fish, packages the meat and returns it to the angler.
“This is not the kind of fish you can kill for research purposes,” Gordon said. “This program allows for getting research information out of the fish that you couldn't get any other way.”
If the fish had eggs, they are carefully removed and processed into caviar, Gordon said.
Paddlefish are a “filter feeder,” he said. “They basically swim Grand Lake with their mouths open.”
“I issue paddlefish permits to half the state of Nebraska and Kansas,” said.
The paddlefish gather around Sail Boat Bridge in November when they are starting to spawn, said Sam Williams, owner of the Grand Lake Sports Center. By April, the paddlefish have started moving north, Williams said.
“The biggest paddlefish was caught in June,” Williams said. “It weighed 133 pounds and seven ounces.”
That monster fish, caught on a jug line, “was let go back into Grand Lake to get bigger,” Williams said.
Spring River is a sanctuary for paddlefish, he said.
“No one is allowed to snag a paddlefish there,” Williams said.
At a glance
The Paddlefish Research Center's spoon bill fishing procedures