Two Missouri men face over $43,000 in fines for the way they trawled Iowa water, searching for sturgeon fish that can ultimately yield caviar.

Investigators say the men were fishing along the Mississippi River in Louisa County, in southeast Iowa, but they were dragging their catch into the Illinois side of the river because of size restrictions on the Iowa side. 

“For the Iowa side of the river, the fish need to be 27 inches long,” says Ben Schlader, a conservation officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “And in Illinois, the fish need to be 24 inches long.”

A 27-inch fish is about seven years old, whereas a 24-inch sturgeon would likely be about two years younger.

Forty-three-year-old Robert Housman of Sikeston, Missouri, and 39-year-old Michael Dye of Charleston, Missouri, each have been charged with the “unlawful take and possession of shovelnose sturgeon” as well as two counts of setting commercial fishing nets in an area where the nets were banned. The sturgeon season begins at midnight on October 15 in Iowa waters. Schlader says the two men may have been trying to get a jump on competitors.

“The Illinois season actually starts October 1, a couple of weeks prior to Iowa,” Schlader says. “But being in Iowa water it was mid-afternoon on October the 14th when we observed these two gentlemen setting entanglement gear, which is trammel net — commercial fishing nets, before the season was opened.”

The younger Missouri man faces another charge, for not having a commercial fishing license.

Sturgeon eggs can be worth as much as $100 per pound — as they wind up as caviar. State officials say it’s important to regulate the fishing of sturgeon to avoid what’s happened in Russia where fish eggs were “over-harvested” and the supply of caviar can’t keep up with demand.

“It’s something that we do like to pay special enforcement attention to given that anytime you start to attach value, monetary value like that to a species there tends to be increased activity around that,” Schlader says.

The men were fishing just north of where the Iowa River dumps into the Mississippi, near the communities of Oakville and Wapello. State conservation officers also seized about $40,000 worth of gear from the two Missouri men, including a boat, the boat motor and fishing nets.