How a prehistoric native fish is filling a void in the international food market.
Oklahoma is well known for many things: the oil boom, waving wheat, country musicians and … caviar? While surprising, the latter is becoming increasingly true, thanks to a prehistoric fish that calls the state’s lakes and rivers home.
One of Oklahoma’s largest fish, the paddlefish often weighs more than 100 pounds and dates to the Jurassic Period. Tulsans can catch the ancient fish, also known as spoonbill, right out of the Arkansas River or in the Neosho Drainage that includes lakes such as Grand and Fort Gibson.
Although not renowned for their meat, paddlefish are relatives of sturgeon, which foodies recognize as the source of beluga caviar, an expensive delicacy worldwide.
Like their cousins, female paddlefish also produce a high-quality roe (eggs) that is internationally sought.
However, overfishing and poaching of the beluga sturgeon, native to the Caspian and Black seas, are two reasons for the increased scarcity of beluga caviar on the world market.
Recognizing the potential of Oklahoma’s strong paddlefish population as a resource for anglers and the department, Brent Gordon, northeast regional fisheries supervisor with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC), developed the Paddlefish Research & Management Program in 2008.
It works like this:
- Angler catches paddlefish in Oklahoma lake or river.
- Angler takes paddlefish to the ODWC’s Paddlefish Research and Processing Center (PRPC) at Twin Bridges State Park or calls the center for fish pickup by ODWC personnel.
- Department safely cleans and packages fish for anglers free of charge.
- Department harvests and processes any paddlefish roe and sells on the world market, mostly in Europe and Japan.
In its first year, the program sold about 8,000 pounds of No. 1 grade Oklahoma paddlefish caviar, raising $1.4 million for paddlefish research, law enforcement against poachers and improved boating and fishing access.
Although similar paddlefish programs have been successful in states such as Montana and North Dakota, this is the first venture of its kind for the ODWC.
Through a federally administered state wildlife grant, the ODWC has tagged thousands of paddlefish in Oklahoma lakes since the 1970s to get a better understanding of this unique species.
The Paddlefish Research & Management Program contributes to this research by allowing the ODWC to collect important data about each paddlefish brought in for cleaning and processing.
By making paddlefish eggs available legally on the international market, the program also regulates the sale of roe, which decreases poaching and helps ensure the species’ conservation.
“We created a program that was very good for conservation of the species and that benefited anglers, who are stakeholders, and the department,” Gordon says. “It has really brought Oklahoma to the forefront in paddlefish research.”