SEBASTIAN COUNTY, Ark. (KTHV) -- Champagne wishes and caviar dreams can be found right here in Arkansas. Liz Massey first introduced you to our state's caviar industry, but now she's showing you where those dreams begin by taking rare trip down the Arkansas River to see something unusual.
With Bill Posey, a malocologist and commercial fisheries biologist with Arkansas Game and Fish, as a guide Liz met up with another team to get up close and personal with a fish she's never seen
"Paddlefish, they're prehistoric fish, closely related to a shark because they have no bones," explained Posey.
What's inside the paddlefish is big business here in Arkansas
"Caviar, a lot of people don't realize a lot of caviar comes from our freshwater here in the state, here in the U.S.," said Posey.
A $2 million a year industry is regulated by Arkansas Game and Fish and the Food and Drug Administration. Posey said of the 7 states that allow the commercial harvest of paddlefish each year, Arkansas ranks in the top 3 of producing the most pounds of caviar.
The paddlefish population is now under strict protection in the state of Arkansas.
"We were finding carcasses floating in the river without any eggs in them, and that threw up a red flag. It was very alarming to find 20 dead fish that had just been eviscerated. So, that's why we began the intensive management that we have now," said Posey.
In fact, they've been keeping an eye on the population since 2002.
The nets are put out for 18 to 24 hours; then they're checked. They tag them, check for eggs, measure, count, release, and compare to other rivers including the Mississippi, White and Ouachita.
Frank Leone, a fisheries management biologist with Game and Fish, has been working with paddlefish for 11 years.
"I just really, really enjoy monitoring the population and getting out here once a year and doing sampling," said Leone.
From November to April some 50 commercial fishermen harvest paddlefish.
"We just need to maintain a sustainable harvest and if we can do that we're going to have paddlefish in Arkansas for a long time," he added.
Only a handful of people are licensed to process and sell the caviar.
Along with commercial fishing there is sport fishing. As long as you have a fishing license you can catch two paddlefish a day, but they won't bite a lure. You have to snag them, and you have to keep what you catch. You can't cull them.