Caviar kingpins of Contra Costa? Major law enforcement operation exposes black market for California delicacy


MARTINEZ — Since November 2020, investigators with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have installed GPS trackers on cars, conducted nighttime stakeout surveillance operations, spied on Facebook accounts and traced wire transactions connected to what they describe as a major investigation into the state’s caviar black market.

The 18-month effort paid off: All told, eight people have been arrested this year on suspicion of illegal fishing and other violations, and prosecutors in Contra Costa County are preparing to file criminal charges against several others, according to court records. Authorities have identified people believed to be illegally fishing sturgeon from the Carquinez Strait and Sacramento River, as well as middlemen who buy the roe, convert it into caviar, and sell it to customers under the counter.

The suspects called sturgeon roe “black gold,” and it sold for around $150 a pound — a massive discount compared to restaurant prices that can go around $100 per ounce.

Sturgeon are huge bottom-dwelling fish that can live up to 100 years. They inhabit the Carquinez Strait and spawn in the Sacramento River, where humans have fished them for centuries. Green sturgeon are federally protected and classified as a threatened species, meaning they can’t be fished. White sturgeon are classified as “a species of special concern” due to threats to their spawning habitats.

A single large female sturgeon — the only fish species that can produce what is officially labeled “caviar,” can contain dozens of pounds of roe, but state law limits sturgeon fishers to three white sturgeon per year that must be between 40 and 60 inches in length. Unprocessed roe can go for around $70 per pound, assuming the eggs are still in good shape.

Black market fishing busts are nothing new to California — Jack London chased down oyster pirates in the Carquinez Strait 150 years ago — and caviar busts are no exception. In 2005, nine people were arrested in a similar operation, and six California residents were charged with running a black market caviar ring in 2016, based in Sacramento.

But authorities say this ring is one of the biggest the department has come across, both in terms of its scope, the number of jurisdictions involved, and the other potential criminal activity, which includes illegal weapons possession, counterfeit cash, and 1,000 pounds of suspected illegal cannabis found during a search warrant service last April.

Authorities believe the suspects, including Oakland residents Andrew Chao, 31, and Ay Pou Saechao, 35, illegally fished at least 36 sturgeon over a two-year period, including a barely living 85.5-inch white sturgeon found in the trunk of Chao’s gold sedan during a traffic stop on March 14 near the Sacramento River. The fish was raced back to the water and survived.

The investigation started with a probe of two suspected clam poachers in the Sacramento area, and during a review of their Facebook accounts, investigators found conversations about black market caviar deals dating back to 2018. One of the men inquired about who would purchase sturgeon roe, remarking he had “at least 100” pounds from a 67-inch sturgeon, according to court records.

The other allegedly responded with the number for a San Francisco man named Yevgeniy Petryanik, 38. Petryanik, along with three other family members, is suspected of converting sturgeon roe into caviar and selling it for distribution, according to a news release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

When he was identified as a suspect, CDFW investigators took the rare step of tracking his phone calls and installing a GPS device on his Chevrolet pickup truck — law enforcement tactics that are typically reserved for probes of major drug trafficking rings or organized crime.

In April 2021, authorities tracked Petryanik to San Pablo, where he met with a 30-year-old Richmond man. A fish and wildlife warden watched from an unmarked department car as the Richmond man handed over a bucket that appeared to be sturgeon roe and the two poured a large amount of salt into it, a step in the process of curing the eggs to make caviar, investigators said in court records.

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