A poor man's bait can be a rich man's caviar — just add salt. Paddlefish eggs — used by some anglers as catfish bait — can be made into delectable caviar that is an alternative to Caspian sea caviar, the supply of which is now limited by sturgeon harvest restrictions. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation plans to take advantage of that dwindling supply and increased demand for the luxury product by making and selling paddlefish caviar. The paddlefish eggs will come from fish caught by anglers on Grand Lake. Paddlefish caviar is highly desirable, rated by some as the second-best caviar in the world, behind only beluga caviar. Beluga is the biggest of all sturgeons, and its caviar is the most expensive in the world, selling on average for $150 to $200 an ounce. Paddlefish — a cousin of the sturgeon — provides an alternative caviar that retails for more than $300 a pound. Oklahoma is one of the few states with a healthy paddlefish population, primarily in Grand Lake and its river systems. The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission earlier this month approved a pilot project to begin in February, where the state Wildlife Department will harvest the eggs of paddlefish caught by anglers on Grand Lake and process the eggs into caviar. The caviar then will be sold to wholesalers. State wildlife officials estimate they will earn $200,000 annually from the sales. It's estimated it will take about three years to recoup the initial start-up costs. Most paddlefish eggs are discarded by anglers. A few make homemade caviar, while about one-third of paddlefish anglers will use the eggs as bait. But 69 percent of anglers just throw the eggs away, according to surveys conducted by the state Wildlife Department. "It's a wasted resource,” said Brent Gordon, northeast fisheries chief for the state wildlife department. Instead of wasting the eggs, state wildlife officials hope to persuade anglers to bring their paddlefish to them so the eggs can be harvested. In exchange for keeping the eggs, state wildlife officials will clean the paddlefish and package the filets for anglers. One female paddlefish will produce on average 5 to 7 pounds of caviar, Gordon said. A processing and research center will be built at Twin Bridges State Park, located at the junction of the Spring and Neosho Rivers on the top of Grand Lake, a hot spot for snagging paddlefish in the spring. Anglers can bring their fish to the processing center but the state wildlife department even plans a pick-up service to accommodate anglers. For the project to be successful, anglers have to be willing to participate, said Keith Green, game warden supervisor. "If we can't get them to invest in it, it's not going to work,” he said. Ninety-three percent of the paddlefish anglers surveyed last spring in Oklahoma said they would support the project. North Dakota and Montana have similar programs. Commercial fishing for paddlefish is allowed in seven states, but was banned in Oklahoma in 1992 to protect the population. Since then, the population in Grand Lake has more than doubled, with stricter harvest restrictions and increased law enforcement on illegal netters. So why should the state be allowed to process the eggs from a natural resource and sell caviar when its citizens cannot? Gordon said one commercial fisherman would decimate Oklahoma's population of paddlefish. And the state Wildlife Department only is going to harvest eggs from paddlefish legally caught by anglers. State wildlife officials are not going to kill paddlefish to produce more caviar. The money earned from the sales will go back into paddlefish management and law enforcement. In addition to making a few bucks from the caviar, the project also will allow researchers to collect valuable data on the species, Gordon said. Some data cannot be gathered without sampling large numbers of fish, he said. "Quite frankly, I can't get this information any other way, and it pays for itself,” Gordon said. "This is a fiscally sound and biologically viable effort. It's good for the fish, good for anglers and good for the wildlife department. "The bottom line is that this center will lead to better managed fish populations and improved fishing opportunities for anglers.” If the pilot project is successful, state wildlife officials plan to expand it to other lakes where snagging for paddlefish is popular, such as Keystone and Fort Gibson.
Paddlefish caviarPaddlefish eggs are made into caviar through a salting process. The production process is very secretive and state wildlife officials plan to hire consultants in the industry to train them in processing the eggs. The state Wildlife Department initially will sell its caviar only to wholesalers, but may create its own Oklahoma brand of paddlefish caviar to retail in the future. From staff reports