Sturgeon biologist convicted in caviar case
WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - A sturgeon biologist caught up in an alleged caviar theft case has been convicted of Resisting a Conservation Warden in Winnebago County.
On Friday, Ryan Koenigs pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge and was found guilty. He was ordered to pay a fine.
The charge was amended down from a count of misdemeanor Theft.
Koenigs was charged as part of a long-term investigation into the processing of sturgeon caviar and using eggs donated to the DNR for research.
According to a criminal complaint, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were investigating reports of sturgeon eggs being illegally bought, sold or bartered around Lake Winnebago since at least 2017. They found a “concerted effort to funnel sturgeon roe to particular processors for caviar production,” including eggs collected from the catches of sturgeon spearers.
Prosecutors say excess eggs were taken to local caviar processors who were paid for their work with caviar. Additional caviar was given to DNR staff and friends and family.
That roe given for research was the property of the State of Wisconsin, and DNR policy said it should be returned to the spearers who harvested the eggs or destroyed.
Eater.com states “entry-level” sturgeon caviar costs $65 to $85 per 30 grams. Higher quality will go for $150 per 30 grams.
Koenigs, hired as Winnebago System Lake Sturgeon Biologist in 2012, has been 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.”
Some fishing clubs in the area have voiced support for Koenigs and his record of revitalizing the sturgeon population.
Former Otter Street Fishing Club president Don Herman says, “He has 1,000% backing behind all of the fishing clubs, Sturgeon for Tomorrow, everybody that has anything to do with the sturgeon population, we think it’s kind of far-fetched what they’re trying to do.”
Koenigs also has a Resisting a Conservation Warden case in Calumet County. It has not been settled as of this publication.
Koenigs is on administrative leave from the Wisconsin DNR.
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