Last week, Pat Durkin reported on charges filed against Wisconsin’s head sturgeon biologist, Ryan Koenigs, for his involvement in illicit caviar trading. Several other pillars of the Lake Winnebago sturgeon community were also implicated in the case.
Reactions to the pending charges have been mixed. Frankly, lots of people are pissed off at the DNR’s handling of the situation. Regardless of your opinions on how this particular case has played out, what unfolded in Wisconsin might encourage all us hunters and anglers to recognize that we’re sometimes a bit too cavalier with wildlife products. Gifting a couple packages of deer steaks to a friend in exchange for help plowing a snowed-in driveway, or some walleye fillets in exchange for a loaner auger, feels as natural and innocent to many of us as dropping off a dozen hand-tied flies or a six pack of beer. But, those examples are not equivalent. The fact is that trading wildlife products for goods or services is not legal, no matter the intentions or scenario.
Though the specifics of what qualifies as barter might feel gray, the repercussions for violation are not. Just ask the folks around Lake Winnebago.
News that Koenigs and others were implicated in wildlife crimes shocked and saddened just about everyone who’s lived or spent time in the communities around Lake Winnebago, including some of us here at MeatEater. If you watched the sturgeon spearing episodes in the Fur Hat Ice Tour, you may remember an interview with Mr. Koenigs. He was instrumental in putting those episodes together, and an invaluable source of information about lake sturgeon—their history, biology, and conservation status.
Though Koenigs stands accused of significant misdeeds, especially in regard to his obstruction of the investigation, those don’t negate his years of service to the community of spearers and anglers around the state of Wisconsin and the population of sturgeon that he helped manage.
Koenigs is, or was, responsible for overseeing one of the largest, healthiest, and best-managed sturgeon populations in North America. Lake sturgeon, like all sturgeon, were nearly extirpated by the turn of the 20th century, and over the past 120 years most of those populations have not recovered. They remain listed as threatened or endangered in 19 of the 20 states that historically had viable populations. The Lake Winnebago system in Wisconsin is an outlier. This place is the success story that the rest of the country, and other parts of the world, hope to emulate.
Some of that success can be attributed to the culture of sturgeon spearing. People around Winnebago love this sport. When the season opens, they spend hours in dark huts huddled over giant holes in the ice—6-foot-long tridents at the ready—waiting for massive fish to appear. They’ll do this for days on end despite the fact that the vast majority of hopeful spearers will never even see a sturgeon in that hole.
Back in the late 1970s, the sturgeon spearing community banded together and founded the conservation group Sturgeon for Tomorrow. That organization has grown into the largest citizen advocacy group for sturgeon in the world. They have partnered with management agencies and biologists all over the U.S. and abroad. They helped initiate and fund sturgeon hatchery programs. They advocated for the enforcement of the Clean Water Act and rehabilitation of habitat. They pioneered the “sturgeon guard”—groups of volunteers who line the banks of the Wolf River every year to protect spawning sturgeon from poachers and other threats. So often, fish and wildlife recovery efforts result in conflict between management agencies and local residents, but in this case, spearers and anglers have been able to work in concert with the Wisconsin DNR, and the results have been phenomenal.
As Koenigs told MeatEater’s Janis Putelis during the filming of the Fur Hat Ice Tour, “This population’s had a chance, with the protections that have been in place for the past few decades, that we’re starting to see what these fish can actually do. We’ve got more fish than we’ve probably had in recent decades, maybe even dating back to the late 1800s, and we’ve got more big fish than we maybe ever have had.”
Lake Winnebago sturgeon are a rare and unequivocal success story in modern fisheries conservation. They are in such good shape that the Wisconsin DNR sells over 10,000 sturgeon tags most seasons. Biologists set annual harvest caps for males, juvenile females, and adult females, based on population data. The DNR operates registration stations at all major lake access points to closely monitor fish harvest. If any of those caps reaches 90%, which doesn’t happen every year, the season closes the following day. Techs and biologists collect samples and invaluable information from each fish harvested, like length, weight, sex, stomach contents, and sexual maturity, which provide critical information for continuing to monitor and manage the fish.
This complex and well-organized event gets tens of thousands of people fired up about these fish, but the 2021 spearing season opened with a dark cloud hanging over it on Saturday, Feb. 13. Koenigs, the biologist who has successfully overseen the Winnebago sturgeon season since 2012, has been placed on administrative leave. He’s also facing up to $10,000 in fines and up to 9 months in jail, if convicted, and he’s not alone.
The details of those charges and the cases have already been reported, but the short of it is that Wisconsin DNR has compiled evidence suggesting that Koenigs and other staffers have been supplying roe to local caviar processors for years. One local source claimed that it was an “open secret.” Though no evidence has emerged to suggest that any money changed hands, numerous reports indicate that Koenigs and other DNR employees received jars of caviar as thanks. As soon as DNR staff accepted jars of caviar processed from eggs they supplied, those sturgeon eggs were no longer given away to the processor. They became currency, bartered in exchange for goods and services, making the exchanges chargeable offenses.
Victor and Mary Schneider, who we referred to as the “Godparents of Sturgeon Culture” in the Fur Hat Ice Tour, were also charged with unlawful sale of game in connection to this case. Mary Schneider is the 87-year-old decoy carver profiled in the series. Schneider told investigators that she and her husband process eggs dropped off by successful spearers in exchange for half the finished product. There’s no evidence that the Schneiders sold any of the caviar—they either ate it or gave it away to friends and family—but under the law, that’s still a form of barter.
I do not condone selling or bartering wildlife in any form. Doing so cants toward the commodification of wild fish and animals, a slippery slope. But this story leaves me conflicted. According to retired state employees, DNR staff shared the prepared caviar they got from processors at meetings or local taverns as a way of encouraging people to maximize the use of the fish that they harvested. They considered the samples educational. I know from experience that Mary and Victor Schneider delight in helping the community process their sturgeon. The Schneiders host a party on the opening day of the season where they assist successful spearers in butchering and packaging the meat and turning the roe into caviar.
Not everyone treats these fish with the respect that they deserve. During the few days I spent documenting the sturgeon season in Winnebago, I heard more than a few derisive comments about the quality of sturgeon meat and witnessed enough poor handling of carcasses to assume such practices are common. I can imagine that the people working the sturgeon spearing season see a lot of fish and fish eggs go to waste every year, and that probably frustrates them. I can understand why they would want to encourage more spearers to eat the eggs by showing them that they can be turned into a delicacy.
I also know how, in a small town, people often operate on a barter system. They help each other out and return favors in whatever ways they can. This case serves as a very sad and high-profile reminder to all of us that, according to game laws, wildlife can’t be used as currency, even when doing so seems totally innocent and innocuous.
I genuinely hope that the Schneiders walk away with a warning. As for Koenigs, I can’t help but wonder if the blow could have been softened had he been forthright with investigators. Unfortunately, he was reportedly caught lying on record, and reset his work issued phone to factory settings upon learning of the investigation. Maybe he was trying to protect his staff. Maybe he didn’t think what he’d done was actually punishable. I’m certain there are internal politics at play that have not yet come to light, and maybe never will. I do hope, however, that all of the important work Koenigs has done over the years isn’t forgotten or disrupted.
The greatest potential impact might be on the sturgeon. By all accounts, this year’s sturgeon season, which opened just days after the DNR placed Koenigs on leave, has proceeded smoothly. That’s a good sign. But losing the head of sturgeon management in Wisconsin will likely create a disruption. What was a shining example of community, management, conservation, and harvest coming together and achieving a collective goal is now being overshadowed by negative press. It’s a very unfortunate smear on an otherwise beautiful story.
My sense is that everyone implicated in this case committed their crimes with intentions that the vast majority of responsible outdoorsmen and women would consider respectable, if not laudable. But laws do not govern intentions. Laws judge actions based on specific, codified parameters. The law also doesn’t care if you were unaware of those parameters, and therefore had no idea you were operating outside of them. Leveraging wildlife, a public resource, for even the most seemingly insignificant personal gain, is illegal. Keep that in mind the next time you’re thinking about returning a favor or paying a debt with the wealth in your freezer.