California wildlife authorities have arrested nine people on suspicion of poaching sturgeon and other sea creatures and selling the animals on the black market, officials said.
Officers were looking into two separate poaching cases starting last year when they discovered a connection between the suspects and the investigations were merged, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said.
Eight men were arrested on suspicion of poaching white sturgeon from Sacramento Valley waterways, the department said in a news release. A ninth man was arrested on suspicion of selling Dungeness crab and red abalone on the black market.
One of the suspects was allegedly caught during a traffic stop with a nearly 90-inch (2.3-meter) white sturgeon in the back of his car.
“In this case, the fish was still alive, and officers successfully returned it to the water after quickly taking evidence photos,” the news release said.
During surveillance, investigators witnessed the illegal capture of nearly 40 sturgeon, officials said.
Fish and Wildlife authorities called it a “major” poaching operation.
Potential charges include conspiracy to poach sturgeon and multiple violations related to sturgeon fishing and the unlawful sale of sturgeon caviar and meat.
“I am proud of the dedicated wildlife officers who spent countless hours investigating this wildlife trafficking case to protect our native sturgeon population, which is already severely affected by historic drought conditions,” CDFW Deputy Director David Bess said.
During the investigation officers also found illegally possessed deer and abalone, along with guns and drugs, officials said.