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Wisconsin Biologist Charged In Caviar Scam


It's sturgeon spearfishing season in Wisconsin. Watch out, BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Sturgeon look like they're prehistoric, but they live in the waters of Lake Winnebago, and a limited number of licenses are granted each year to people who aspire to catch them. The big news this spearfishing season is that the state's top sturgeon biologist has been charged with crimes related to the illegal bartering of caviar (laughter) - fishy. Here's Susan Bence of member station WUWM.

SUSAN BENCE, BYLINE: Just over a week before its February 13 kickoff, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs predicted a good spearing season.


RYAN KOENIGS: Water clarity is actually the biggest predictor of sturgeon spearing success. With the water clarity this year being favorable...

BENCE: Then, just before spearing fans began hauling shanties onto Lake Winnebago's frozen vastness, news broke of accusations that Koenigs had been part of a caviar racket. In Wisconsin, spearers who harvest a female sturgeon with eggs may process and share the eggs but may not barter or sell them. Koenigs is accused of handing over sturgeon eggs set aside for research to a processor. And in return, he allegedly received thousands of dollars' worth of processed caviar.

JIM PATT: So we aren't too far out here. We'll be there shortly. We have six shanties out here.

BENCE: Fisherman Jim Patt has known and collaborated with Koenigs over the years. Patt grew up along Lake Winnebago and first went spearfishing as a child with his dad. He drives me out to a collection of shanties off the lake's western shore, where generations of his family and friends have shared the spearing tradition.

PATT: Yeah, nephews and my children, too. My daughter and my son both spear. We've all gotten fish. Sometimes you go a number of years without getting any. I have a cousin that hasn't got one since the '90s. He's out here all the time. He's just not - one doesn't swim through.

BENCE: We're inside his latest homemade shanty. Three spears can comfortably peer through large holes carved through the 20-inch-thick ice. And Patt, he doesn't take the fish's abundance for granted. When he was a kid, sturgeon numbers were low due to years of overfishing and poaching, in many cases for the caviar. Sturgeon supporters around the lake stepped up to assist the DNR, forming the group Sturgeon for Tomorrow. More than four decades later, Patt is one of its 2,000-plus members, and the sturgeon population has bounced back to more than 40,000 adult fish.

PATT: We do a lot for the fish - a lot of spawning habitat, a lot of research we've sponsored. It's come a long ways. And what would it be - 42, almost 43 years now? It's over a million dollars that we've donated.

BENCE: Patt is baffled by Koenigs' alleged actions, having worked with the DNR scientist as an ally in conservation. And he sees the potential of having to start over with a new state biologist as a setback.

PATT: We're in a good place right now, and if Ryan is not there anymore, it's going to take years to bring something back. Hopefully it won't affect the sturgeon, but we don't know that, either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, Joseph. What's your - how do you spell your last name?

BENCE: Back on land, Joseph Beck and Jackson Schroeder aren't worrying about the future. They're about to celebrate the sturgeon they've just speared after they're measured and weighed.

JACKSON SCHROEDER: I've gone out for the last eight years. This is my first year with a tag, and this is my first fish ever, so I'm very excited about it.

JOSEPH BECK: This is my first year, second day out...

SCHROEDER: (Laughter).

BECK: ...First fish.

SCHROEDER: Very lucky.

BENCE: Schroeder's fish was the biggest speared on Winnebago that day, a whopping 121.7 pounds. For NPR News, I'm Susan Bence at Lake Winnebago, Wisc.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRONTIDE'S "KITH AND KIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.