An illegal caviar ring has been broken up with the arrest of a dozen people accused of dealing in the ill-gotten fish eggs, conservation officials said.
Indiana conservation officers spent more than a year infiltrating the international fishing ring, Sgt. Dean Shadley said after Monday's arrests.
"It's just like a drug dealer, you've got to hang out where they hang out and talk the talk and walk the walk," he said.
Members of the ring caught paddlefish — distant cousins of caviar-producing sturgeon — in Ohio River tributaries and sold their eggs as caviar, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. One paddlefish can yield as much as $800 worth of eggs, and annual income for those who catch them can range from $100,000 to $400,000.
"It's easy money, it's just like picking cherries," Shadley said. "And I'm sure that was tax free. I can't imagine they reported it."
Commercial fishermen can catch paddlefish in the Ohio River, but tributaries are off limits because that is where the fish spawn.
Paddlefish are edible, but their real value lies in the eggs. A shortage of sturgeon eggs from Asia's Caspian Sea has created a lucrative market for paddlefish eggs, which have a similar taste, look and consistency, according to state officials.
Each person arrested faces a felony charge of illegal sale of a wild animal. Other charges include money laundering and commercial fishing in closed water.