MADISON, WISCONSIN - Prosecutors charged the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' top sturgeon expert Thursday with obstructing an investigation into allegations that his employees have been funneling the valuable fish's eggs to a network of caviar processors under the guise of a scientific study.
Ryan Koenigs faces one count of obstructing a conservation warden, which is a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in jail and $10,000 in fines. Online court records did not list an attorney for him. DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye said Koenigs was placed on administrative leave Thursday but declined further comment. He could be the first of many to be charged in what investigators allege was a wide-ranging scheme involving multiple DNR employees and caviar processors.
Sturgeon are bony fish that can grow as large as 3.6 meters (12 feet) long, and their eggs are highly coveted as caviar. Wisconsin, which prides itself on outdoor traditions such as hunting and fishing, holds a sturgeon spearing season every February on the Lake Winnebago system near Oshkosh, about 142 kilometers (90 miles) northwest of Milwaukee. This year's season is set to begin Saturday.
According to the criminal complaint, Koenigs has served as the DNR's top sturgeon biologist since 2012 and is the lead coordinator for the department's spearing season. He oversees the roughly 60 DNR workers who staff registration stations during the season.
The DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a joint investigation in 2017 into allegations that DNR workers had been illegally selling or trading sturgeon caviar in violation of state and federal law. The investigation culminated in January 2020 and uncovered multiple people who were illegally selling, purchasing, bartering or trading sturgeon eggs, the complaint states.
Investigators interviewed Koenigs in January 2020. He told them that DNR registration workers collect eggs as part of a fertility study. If a spearer wants the eggs back, the workers will not collect them or they will return them after they have been studied, Koenigs said.
Investigators asked him why workers at a registration station were putting eggs in a cooler marked for a caviar processor. Koenigs said he did not know the processor, that staff should not be taking custody of eggs and that he did not know the processor kept a cooler at the station.
He said he had never called the processor. When investigators showed him phone records confirming that Koenigs had in fact done so in May 2018, he said he did not know what he and the processor discussed, but that he was sure it was not sturgeon eggs.
He insisted he did not know that any DNR workers were collecting eggs and giving them to members of the public who were not involved in department research. He added, however, that if a spearer asks for eggs to be taken to a processor as part of the research, DNR workers will do so and that processors sometimes thank DNR staffers with jars of caviar.
Investigators interviewed Kendall Kamke, a DNR fisheries supervisor, the same day. He said he was guilty of taking eggs to a processor "here and there" and that processors would give him jars of caviar in return. One processor gave him moonshine, he said.
Investigators also uncovered official DNR logs showing that caviar was going to a processor, according to the complaint. A former DNR fisheries supervisor named Ronald Bruch told them that staff had received caviar from processors for years and ate it at meetings.
Two processors told investigators that staff would give them eggs; one of them said he made 65 pounds of caviar out of them in 2015. He and Koenigs were both nervous about the arrangement because it was prohibited, he said. A DNR sturgeon registration employee told them that one year, they threw out all the eggs because wardens were asking too many questions about them, the complaint states.
Investigators searched Koenigs' home in June and seized his DNR-issued phone. They discovered it had been erased in April, four months after they interviewed him, and reset without the department's permission.
Last week, Koenigs told investigators that members of his staff were indeed taking eggs from five to six sturgeon to processors annually after research rather than throwing them away. He also said he accepted 20 to 30 jars of caviar annually from processors and disbursed 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 an investigation "that could have been dramatically shortened had he told investigators the truth," the complaint said.