This Earth Day, giant, enormous, and I do mean shockingly huge fish in California are a little bit safer. After nearly a yearlong investigation, Sacramento authorities have busted a major sturgeon poaching operation in the area. 

You may know sturgeon from social media, where videos of these living dinosaurs have been known to go viral. Sturgeon have been around since the Jurassic period, can grow up to 10 feet long — occasionally longer than 20 feet — live 100 years, and, despite looking like entire whales, some species live only in freshwater lakes and rivers. 

If you don’t spend your time looking at videos of gargantuan fish on TikTok, you might know sturgeon for its prized caviar, made from the fishes’ roe. Beluga caviar, for example, widely considered to be the finest in the world, comes from the beluga sturgeon, found primarily in the Caspian Sea (and illegal to import to the U.S.). Unfortunately, demand for their roe has led to the overfishing of many sturgeon species, nearly to the point of extinction. The World Wildlife Fund calls sturgeon the “most endangered species group on earth.” Amid protections for the fish, a black market thrives, and illegal poaching of the species for its eggs is a major concern in the world of wildlife conservation. 

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Capt. Patrick Foy, sturgeon are facing a serious struggle in California, with the threat of poaching layered on top of a devastating drought season. “We are experiencing a historic-level drought, and it’s creating huge problems for both our salmon and our sturgeon populations,” Foy says. “And we have poachers on top of the drought pressure creating miserable conditions for the sturgeon.” Recreational fishers are only allowed three sturgeon a year — they must be within 30 and 60 inches long — and selling the fish in the state is prohibited.

On Thursday, CDFW announced officials had arrested eight people suspected of poaching white sturgeon from Sacramento Valley waterways and another person on suspicion of illegally selling other marine creatures.

The investigation began in May 2021, according to a press release from the agency, when wildlife officers began looking into two Oakland residents — Andrew Chao, 31, and Ay Pou Saechao, 35 — whom they believed were catching sturgeon, removing their eggs, and selling them to a four-member family operation in San Francisco. Authorities allege the family was then processing the roe into caviar and selling it on the black market. The officers made arrests, and according to  Fish and Wildlife, the resulting poaching case against Chao, Saechao, and the four other suspects is still ongoing. Rolling Stone was unable to reach Chao and Saechao for comment, but we will update this article if we do. 

California Department of Fish and Wildlife sturgeon

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

After those initial charges, officials continued to monitor Chao and Saechao, suspecting they had ties to other poachers. In March 2022, as wildlife officials were preparing search warrants for Chao, Saechao, and other suspects, officers pulled the two men over in a traffic stop on suspicion that they’d been poaching sturgeon from the Sacramento River.

In the trunk of Chao’s car, they say they found a sturgeon that was more than seven feet long — and fighting for its life. “They found this giant behemoth sturgeon in the back of the guy’s hatchback, just folded in there,” Foy tells Rolling Stone. “Because it was so big, the head of the sturgeon was pushed up against the driver’s seat. The whole fish was bent so it could fit into the trunk.” Foy says the officers on the scene backed their truck up to the suspect’s car and slid the fish — which weighed hundreds of pounds — onto their truck bed. “They arrested [the driver] and went to the nearest source of water they could find,” Foy says. He explains officers in a sturgeon rescue scenario (not uncommon for them) typically get the fish in the water and point its snout upstream so the current pushes water through its gills. “They keep it upright and rock it back and forth,” he says. “They keep it oxygenated so it can gain the strength and ultimately swim away on its own.” In this case, the fish departed without incident. “He wasn’t out to the water for a long time,” Foy says.

During the year-long investigation, officers surveilled Chao and Saechao allegedly working with six additional sturgeon-poaching suspects, and claim they witnessed the group take at least 36 sturgeon during the investigation. According to CDFW’s statement, authorities also saw suspects catching juvenile salmon and using them as bait, which is against the law. A ninth suspect is believed to have sold abalone, a protected species of marine snail, and to have sold Dungeness crabs without a commercial license.

On March 30, officers served nine warrants and booked the suspected poachers into Sutter County Jail. Most have since been released from custody, Foy says, adding that he expects charges from the Sutter County District Attorney to be forthcoming, although none of the suspects have been officially charged at this time.

In addition to conspiracy to poach sturgeon, suspects face multiple violations related to sturgeon fishing, including unlawful possession of sturgeon, possession of oversized and/or undersized sturgeon, and the unlawful sale of sturgeon caviar and meat. In executing the warrants, officers also discovered at least five unlawfully possessed deer and some abalone. 

Beyond illegal wildlife, authorities announced they found five firearms including a “ghost gun” without a serial number and an AR-15 assault rifle, more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana, and more than $57,000 in cash and counterfeit currency.  The officers also say they observed dozens of instances of littering during the course of their investigation, as the suspects routinely threw food wrappers and beer cans into the river while they fished — a misdemeanor for polluting waterways. The CDFW plans to include the litter violations among the violations it presents to the District Attorney for potential prosecution.