Wisconsin “sturgeon general” accused of lying about caviar investigation

Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 12:33 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 11, 2021 at 9:54 PM CST
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CALUMET COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin’s top sturgeon biologist has been charged with obstructing a warden in an investigation into the illegal sale of lake sturgeon eggs for caviar.

A criminal complaint obtained by Action 2 News shows Ryan P. Koenigs has been charged with Obstruct Conservation Warden in Calumet County. The charge is a misdemeanor.

“Your complainant believes that on Jan. 27, 2020, Ryan Koenigs made several statements to wardens which were not truthful, during the investigation of the Sale of Wild Animals in violation of Wisconsin Stat., regarding his involvement in the collection and providing of eggs to processors for his personal benefit and consumption,” reads the criminal complaint.

A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Investigative Warden and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent had been investigating complaints that Lake Sturgeon roe, also known as caviar, were being “illegally purchased, sold, bartered and traded around the Lake Winnebago area,” according to a criminal complaint obtained by Action 2 News.

The investigation started in 2017 and “culminated with several search warrants and the interview of multiple DNR fisheries employees beginning in January 2020.”

The complaint states investigators uncovered “multiple people that were illegally selling, purchasing, bartering or trading sturgeon roe/caviar.”

Koenigs, hired as Winnebago System Lake Sturgeon Biologist in 2012, is in charge of registration stations, quotas and egg numbers. A conservation warden supervisor and a special agent interviewed Koenigs on January 27, 2020, regarding the registration process for sturgeon spearing. They presented their credentials and explained they were looking to the sale of sturgeon roe.

The warden supervisor asked Koenigs why fisheries staff from DNR were collecting sturgeon eggs for a known caviar processor at a registration station.

Koenigs responded that he did not know the processor, but investigators said phone records showed calls from May 10 and 11, 2018, between Koenigs and the processor. Koenigs said he didn’t call the processor about eggs but didn’t know what the call was about.

The warden supervisor asked Koenigs if DNR staff are collecting sturgeon eggs and giving them to members of the public outside of a DNR study.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Koenigs replied.

“Koenigs later added he has taken sturgeon eggs from people and taken them to a processor but not for financial gain,” reads the complaint. “He said as part of a fecundity study if the spearer says to take them to a processor then DNR workers do.”

Koenigs said that he had taken eggs to one processor and put her name on handout sheets at registration stations so DNR staff can refer spearers to her if they want eggs made into caviar. He said that it crossed his mind that processor might be selling sturgeon caviar.

The special agent pointed out that DNR staff had been holding sturgeon eggs for a processor at a registration station in Oshkosh. DNR documents had the processor’s name next to information about sturgeon eggs being held for her.

Koenigs told the investigators that some of the processors “thank” the DNR fisheries staff by giving them jars of caviar. Koenigs admitted that two processors give him 20-30 jars each year for “colleagues and personal consumption.”

One processor told investigators that he got most of his sturgeon eggs from Koenigs “from the lab.” The processor said he would arrive “after hours” and take the eggs out of the refrigerator. The processor said that Koenigs “would keep the ‘good eggs’ to make caviar.”

The processor said that he would give caviar to Koenigs to “travel around the Winnebago System and give the caviar to fisheries staff, friends, and other spearers.”

On Feb. 5, 2020, a DNR warden spoke with Koenigs on the phone. The warden said Koenigs admitted staff were bringing eggs to processors after research instead of throwing them away.

On June 17, a search warrant was issued at Koenigs’ home in Calumet County and his phone was seized. Investigators discovered a factory reset had been done on the phone after Koenigs and processors were interviewed about the alleged caviar scheme. The complaint states there was no DNR approval for the reset, which is required by state rules.

A notebook seized from Koenigs’ home included a handwritten note reading, “Radio etiquette be aware of what you are saying on radio Wardens can tune into this station on the radio.”

The obstruction charge was filed in Calumet County on Feb. 10, 2021 -- just days before the annual sturgeon spearing season.

For many planning to be on the ice this weekend, the allegations are a shock.

“It was just hard to believe. I said, I know him and I know his family and I said, I still have my doubts, I still have to read the article when I get home,” said Paul Bruckner, a member of the Stockbridge Fishing Club.

Tim Keular of Hilbert added, “He’s a very respected guy. I’m surprised that could be true, I guess. I don’t know, he’s been there a long time, he’s really moved up the ladder and done a nice job for them I believe, according the sturgeon on the lake. It’s a shocker.”

Koenigs is due in court for this initial appearance on March 29.

If convicted of the charge, he faces a fine up to $10,000 and up to 9 months behind bars.

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