River town gets into fish business

You've heard of Rocky Mountain oyesters -- how about Yellowstone Caviar?

  • Paddlefish caviar

    photo courtesy Glendive Chamber of Commerce andAgriculture

GLENDIVE, Mont. - Nine hundred miles from the nearest ocean, men, women and kids line the Yellowstone River north of this ranch town, wielding heavy-duty fishing rods designed for ocean surf casting.

No need for bait this Saturday in June. Just heave your oversize treble hooks out as far as you can, and try to snag one of the monstrous paddlefish - a species older than dinosaurs - that are hidden in the river's roiling, muddy water.

"Fish on!" come the shouts from anglers who are working some of the fish laboriously to shore. Once the fish are landed, they're weighed to see how they stack up against the state record (142.5 pounds). But paddlefish-catching is more than a sport: Here in Montana, it has become a tool for science and community-building.

Each fish is evaluated to gather biological data. Then it's slung on a table so workers can slice it into meat for the angler. If it's a pregnant female, they scoop out gobs of tiny dark green or black eggs to be sold as distinctive Yellowstone Caviar.

Anglers, who come from around the region, are asked to donate the eggs; most do. Profits from the caviar sales are split: 40 percent to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for paddlefish research, and 60 percent to the Glendive Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, which runs the program. The Chamber's cut helps fund causes such as recreation, cultural development and historic preservation.

But the program raises questions about commercializing wildlife, and it may eventually draw too much attention to one of the few healthy wild populations of paddlefish left in the world.

"Caviar is like gold, it brings out the worst in people," warns Dennis Scarnecchia, a University of Idaho fisheries professor who camps on the Yellowstone's banks every spring to study the fish. "The problem is that there are a lot more people (who want the fish and its eggs) than there are paddlefish. Promote it too much and you'll promote it to death."

An exception to the rule

Until recently, paddlefish have been an obscure anachronism. They evolved in complex river systems with high spring flows and gravel bars, and they've been greatly reduced by regulated flows, habitat loss and overfishing. One species survives in China and one in the United States, in the Mississippi and Ohio river systems and in the Missouri river system, which includes the Yellowstone. They feed on microscopic zooplankton, filtering water through their gill rakes; their long, paddle-shaped snouts seem to act as a sort of dousing rod for finding food.

Around the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri near Glendive, paddlefish have gone through prosperity and decline. The number tripled during the 1960s and '70s, when a dam in North Dakota created a new reservoir rich with nutrients from drowned vegetation. Once the reservoir stabilized, paddlefish declined by more than half, leveling off at the current population of about 30,000.

Every spring, the fish swim upstream from the reservoir in search of gravel beds for spawning. Thousands get stalled by a diversion dam near Glendive, making this a hot fishing spot. Anglers used to throw away the eggs, until the locals lobbied the Montana Legislature for an exception to the state law against commercializing wildlife.

Desperation drove the idea. Glendive, with about 6,500 residents, has been losing population for decades, burdened by persistent drought, fading agriculture and the bust of the local oil industry. Since the caviar program began in 1990, it's pumped more than a half-million dollars into local nonprofits for benefits such as baseball fields, museums, Shakespeare in the Parks, and a new community center.

"In eastern Montana, that's a big chunk of change," says Linda Koncilya, president of the chamber of commerce. Most of the world's caviar used to come from sturgeon, a distant paddlefish cousin, but those stocks, mostly in the Caspian Sea, have collapsed from overfishing and poaching. Prices have spiraled upward and gourmets scurry to find new sources. At the same time, a farmed caviar industry in the U.S. has established a good reputation for domestic sturgeon and paddlefish. In the past year, articles about paddlefish caviar have surfaced in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Gourmet magazine. One hip Seattle cafe, for example, serves it on a sharp wild-ginger flan.

"Four years ago, we were lucky to get $50 for a pound of caviar," says Koncilya. "This year, we got over $150."

Publicity could draw poachers

The program has proved so successful that Williston, N.D., has started to sell its own river caviar, and at least one other town is trying to get into the business.

The catch around Glendive is limited to 1,500 paddlefish per year, and the same for Williston, so the total allowed take is no more than 10 percent of the local population. The catch seems sustainable right now, says Bill Schmitz, regional fish manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But the volatility of the caviar business, and the potential for overharvesting and poaching, could change that.

"When you commercialize any wildlife," Schmitz says, "there is always a concern that you'll put pressure on it, and it will decline."

Since it takes 15 to 25 years for a female paddlefish to mature, and the fish usually remain out of sight in the reservoir, "we may not see the impact of this year's catch (and removal of eggs) for 10 years," Schmitz warns.

Poachers have not been a noticeable problem on the Yellowstone yet, but they could arrive any day, as eggs from one fish can now sell for a thousand dollars. Oklahoma and Missouri have been plagued by paddlefish poachers and have run sting operations.

"We can't regulate the illegal fishery," Scarnecchia says. "If everyone found out what these fish are worth ... I don't even want to talk about it."

But despite all the risks, for the most part Glendive's paddlefish program runs smoothly. Scarnecchia, who collects jawbones to determine the ages of the fish, says the program benefits the species by funding the state's research and generating a flow of specimens to be studied. It also encourages the locals to care about the health of the fishery and the river. He says that paddlefish now "have a whole lot more people who want to see a stable population."

David Philipps is a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette; Lori Brooks is a reporter for the Ranger Review in Glendive, Montana.

You can contact ...

  • Yellowstone Caviar Project, Glendive Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, 406/365-5601, www.glendivechamber.com;
  • Brad Schmitz, fishery director, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, regional office in Miles City, Mont., 406/232-0914;
  • Dennis Scarnecchia, fisheries professor, University of Idaho, Moscow, 208/885-5981.

Copyright © 2002 David Philipps and Lori Brooks

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