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Default Poaching eggs

8 Arrested in Alleged Caviar Poaching Ring

By Stuart Leavenworth -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer

State and federal wildlife agents Friday busted up what they described
as a Sacramento-based ring of caviar poachers who stole sturgeon out of
local waterways for at least two years and sold the fish roe for big

By late Friday, authorities had arrested eight people in what they
dubbed Operation Delta Beluga.

Among those arrested were Tamara A. Bugriyev, 51, and her 27-year-old
son, Yuriy S. Bugriyev, who led the enterprise out of their Fair Oaks
duplex, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
Investigators say the alleged poachers were trying to capitalize on the
rising price and scarcity of Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea, where
sturgeon have been fished close to extinction since the collapse of the
Soviet Union.

In California, poachers collected eggs from white sturgeon, caught
mainly in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and processed and canned
the roe in several homes in the area. Some of the leftover sturgeon was
sold at a Citrus Heights deli, whose owner was among those arrested

The fate of the canned caviar was unclear Friday, but agents said they
are investigating whether some was transported out of state, a federal
crime that can bring fines of up to $250,000 and a maximum sentence of
up to five years in prison.

Scott Pearson, a law enforcement agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, which assisted in the operation, said he wouldn't be surprised
if some of the Delta roe was repackaged and marketed as Beluga or other
pricy types of caviar, which can sell for more than $1,000 a pound.

"There is a lot of money in caviar," said Pearson. "If you go to a
market and see what a tiny tin costs, you can imagine how lucrative
this would be."

Sturgeon poaching, along with illegal commercial hunting of other fish
and wildlife, has long been a problem in California. Fish and Game
officials estimate that wildlife poachers net up to $100 million each
year, and the department has recently engaged in several
well-publicized busts of illegal bear hunters and rockfish harvests on
the coast.

Friday's arrests, however, signal that poaching in the former Soviet
Union -- where Beluga sturgeon are in rapid decline, pushing up prices
and leading to more illegal fishing -- may be having a spillover effect
in California.

Environmentalists since 2000 have been trying to ban the sale of Beluga
in the United States to remove the incentive for poaching.

"Nothing substantially has changed in the Caspian region" since that
time, said Ellen Pikitch, a fisheries scientist with the Wildlife
Conservation Society who recently returned from a trip to Kazakhstan.

"The supply of caviar has diminished, prices are going up, and that
just provides increased incentive for poachers all over," she added.

State and federal agents are trying to determine if there is a larger
international link to the local poaching operation but so far haven't
established one.

"The investigation is continuing," said Pearson.

The largest freshwater fish in North America -- reaching up to 1,000
pounds or more -- white sturgeon was once a poor man's food in the bars
of the Wild West.

In California, excess fishing led to some of the nation's first
sturgeon conservation laws in the early 20th century. Currently,
sportsmen can catch one white sturgeon a day, but no commercial sale is

Over the last six years, biologists have noted a marked decline in
white sturgeon in California, from an estimated 147,000 to 70,000 fish.

Biologists say that natural factors may be contributing to the decline
but suspect the poaching has hurt sturgeon stocks.

Female sturgeon spawn every four years, and only after they are
teenagers, so just a small loss of females "can have a devastating
effect on populations," said Perry Herrgesell, a Fish and Game
biologist who heads the agency's Central Valley Bay-Delta branch.

State investigators say they were alerted to the poaching in 2001 by
sport anglers who called wardens and the state's anti-poaching hotline,

For two years, they tracked the poachers, videotaping exchanges of
fish, roe and money, and using undercover agents to sell fish to the

During one eight-day period, the Bugriyevs processed 20 fish, obtaining
up to 500 pounds of caviar, said Fred Cole, assistant chief of Fish and

On Friday, agents served search warrants on the Bugriyevs' home and
another in Citrus Heights, where they confiscated 30 large jars of
caviar, as well as two computers that could provide further leads. They
also searched a Citrus Heights deli, Bon Appetit, which had been
observed handling four illegal sturgeon, according to Fish and Game.

Along with the Bugriyevs, agents arrested Rene Quijano Dinong, 43, and
Elena Kharitonova, 36, both of Elk Grove; Moua Yang, 26, and Kee Xiong,
35, both of Sacramento; Inna Rayz, 42, of Vacaville; and Elena Mazur,
44, the Citrus Heights owner of Bon Appetit.

All were booked into Sacramento County jail on charges ranging from
illegal possession of sturgeon to illegal sales. Two other people,
Achien Saephan, 21, and an unidentified man, were taken into custody on
outstanding warrants.

The Bugriyevs, originally from Russia, could face felony charges of
"conspiracy to illegally take sturgeon" and if convicted could face a
sentence of up to three years in state prison, said Cole.

Fish and Game dedicated 43 wardens and worked with counterparts in
Oregon and Washington on Friday's operation, which was clearly
orchestrated not only to nab suspects but to send a message to others.

Journalists were invited to witness the early-morning arrests of the
Bugriyevs, who were led from their duplex in handcuffs -- the mother
wearing a pink bathrobe -- as bewildered neighbors watched from their

"The key message we want to send to the public is that there will be
zero tolerance of illegal commercial use of our resources," said Cole.
"Zero tolerance."

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