‘Sturgeon general’: Wisconsin state biologist charged with caviar scam

A state biologist known as Wisconsin’s “sturgeon general” is facing jail for his alleged role in a lucrative racket that prosecutors say saw valuable fish eggs marked for fertility research funneled instead for caviar production.

Ryan Koenigs, a senior fisheries biologist at Wisconsin’s department of natural resources, lied to conservation wardens investigating allegations that numerous employees were secretly supplying the eggs to a network of caviar processors, according to a criminal complaint filed in Wisconsin’s Calumet county this week. He was suspended on Thursday.

As a kickback, one supervisor allegedly told the wardens, department staff would receive jars of sturgeon caviar – which can cost hundreds of dollars per ounce – and eat it openly during meetings with colleagues. Others told the detectives their reward was moonshine.

Koenigs, the state’s top sturgeon biologist since 2012, was interviewed by investigators in January 2020 and denied knowledge of the alleged sturgeon scam.

He insisted that workers were only taking eggs for fertility or other scientific research, the complaint states, and could not explain why fresh eggs were placed in coolers marked with the name of a caviar producer.

Later, the prosecutors allege, after the production of his mobile phone records, Koenigs admitted to speaking with the caviar processor in calls he had previously denied had taken place. He could not recall what he spoke to them about, the lawsuit alleges, “but he was sure it wasn’t sturgeon eggs”.

The lawsuit said Koenigs told investigators that his staff were taking eggs from five to six sturgeon to the unidentified processors annually, but only after research, and instead of throwing them away. He said he accepted 20 to 30 jars of caviar annually from processors and dispersed them to as many as a dozen co-workers for their personal use, according to the complaint.

His false statements added “hundreds” of hours to the investigation, which began in 2017, the complaint said: “That could have been dramatically shortened had he told investigators the truth.”

Ronald Bruch, the retired director of the department’s fisheries bureau, told the wardens staff had received caviar from processors for years and ate it at meetings. Two processors told investigators that staff would give them eggs and one made 65 pounds of caviar from them in 2015.

Koenigs faces up to nine months in prison and $10,000 in fines if convicted of a single misdemeanor count of obstructing a conservation warden. Nobody else has yet been charged, but authorities say the investigation is continuing.

Efforts to reach Koenigs for comment on Friday were unsuccessful. Sarah Hoye, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin department of natural resources, sent the Guardian a brief statement. “Although the department does not comment on ongoing investigations, we can confirm Ryan Koenigs is on administrative leave effective Thursday following an internal investigation,” she wrote.

News of the scandal comes as Wisconsin’s annual 16-day sturgeon spearing season begins Saturday on the state’s Winnebago lakes system. More than 12,000 spearing licenses were purchased in 2020, although the “harvest” was capped at just above 2,000.

Sturgeon are large, bony fish, growing up to 12ft in length, and their eggs are prized for caviar processing.

According to the criminal complaint, Koenigs was lead coordinator for the department’s spearing season, and oversaw about 60 department staff handling registration.