A Unique Export: Paddlefish Caviar from Northwest North Dakota
Post Date: Mar 09 2018
North Dakota’s paddlefish season is short, intense and full of excitement. Its success depends on the cooperation of local, state, public and private entities and results in both a unique North Dakota export and valuable research and conservation opportunities.  Paddlefish are one of the largest freshwater fish in North America, commonly reaching 5 feet or more in length and 60 pounds in weight. Paddlefish are also one of the oldest fish species, with fossil records dating their first appearance at 300 to 400 million years ago (about 50 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared). Each spring, paddlefish return to spawn where the Yellowstone spills into the Missouri River, a scenic and historic confluence largely unchanged since its discovery by Lewis and Clark in 1805-1806. They swim against the current to deposit their eggs on the flooded gravel bars in the Yellowstone.

The effort to coordinate a paddlefish season and harvest paddlefish roe is organized through North Star Caviar (NSC), a collaboration between Friends of Fort Buford and Fort Union; Williston Convention & Visitors Bureau, and North Dakota Game and Fish. During the season, North Star Caviar contracts an additional 15 workers including a site manager/processor, boat shuttle and fish shuttle employees and people to clean the fish.

Thousands of fishing enthusiasts, their friends and their families come to the area to catch a paddlefish as it returns to the place of its birth. In 2017, there were 3351 paddlefish licenses sold: 2700 resident licenses from 190 different cities all across North Dakota and 651 non-resident licenses representing 34 states and 3 Canadian provinces. While about 150 camped at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence area, where most of the fishing occurs, most anglers stay in local hotels.
Bait isn’t needed to snag a paddlefish, but saltwater gear is required. Rods are a minimum of 10 feet long with a spinning reel equipped with at least 200 yards of 30 pound line and a large treble hook. While some anglers get lucky and catch their fish within a few casts, the average effort requires about 15 hours spread over 3 and a half days. 

Paddlefish season results in a surprising North Dakota export. NSC is licensed and supervised by the North Dakota Game and Fish department and approved for caviar export and CITES trade. Snagged paddlefish are cleaned at the river confluence free of charge in exchange for any harvested roe, which is then processed into premium caviar and sold on the world market. NSC sells to multiple wholesale buyers in Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, New Mexico and California, who then export the caviar to domestic and international markets. NSC reported some product was sent to Japan in 2016.

The first portion of each year's proceeds from the sale of caviar is directed to the Game and Fish Department for paddlefish research, information and enforcement. Current paddlefish populations are challenged by changing spawning grounds, blockage of migratory movements by dams, pollution, and commercial overharvest. The research conducted as a result of North Star Caviar funding provides valuable insight into the life cycle, behavior and habitat of the paddlefish, providing fisheries management the tools to assure a sustainable population.

The remaining proceeds are granted back to non-profit groups in the region for historical, cultural, and recreational projects and efforts which improve conditions of habitat, and land and water access for outdoor activities. These activities directly improve both the visitor and resident experience in beautiful northwest North Dakota. 

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