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Unique caviar operation in North Dakota suspends operations

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota nonprofit that turns paddlefish eggs into caviar is suspending operations, blaming a glut of cheap Chinese caviar on the market.

North Star Caviar for a quarter century has offered free fish-cleaning services to anglers during the monthlong paddlefish season on the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in May in return for keeping the eggs.

The nonprofit, founded in 1993 by the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce and the Friends of Fort Union-Fort Buford group, has provided more than $2 million in grants through the years to community groups and at least $500,000 to research on paddlefish, which aren’t endangered but the numbers are declining. Wildlife officials keep close tabs on them, and North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department shuts down the season early if the 1,000-fish cap is reached.

There aren’t likely to be any grants this year as more than three-fourths of last year’s caviar crop of 2,400 pounds remains unsold, thanks to Chinese caviar that is half the cost, according to Greg Hennessy, North Star’s board chairman and co-founder. It takes female paddlefish more than 15 years to become sexually mature, and China’s farm-raised caviar industry is finally beginning to take off, he said.

“They’ve put an additional 450 metric tons of caviar into a market that over the last 15 years had a peak of about 150 tons,” he said. “They increased it 300 percent.”

North Star Caviar is continuing to seek a market for its 2016 product, but it will not provide the free fish-cleaning service this year. That means the loss of part-time jobs for about 20 people. The nonprofit’s full-time general manager will stay on.

“Depending on what the market is, we could unlock the door and start up again,” Hennessy said. “But sales is the threshold issue.”

Game and Fish is trying to find a group willing to provide the fish-cleaning service, with the start of the season only two weeks away.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the fish harvested (each year) are taken to that fish-cleaning site,” state Fisheries Chief Greg Power said. “The public has come to expect having their fish cleaned, and it helps keep the area cleaner.”

It also helps the agency keep tabs on how many paddlefish are being harvested, he said.

Game and Fish has received 25 percent of the caviar proceeds through the years, and Power said he isn’t sure how that source of funding will be replaced should North Star Caviar’s problems prove long-term.

“We’re going to have to come up with a different plan for sure if this is going to continue,” he said. “It’s been a really good partnership for 25 years.”

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