- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota caviar has a certain ring to it, one that disrupts the typical archetype of the high-end food business.

How does something so delicate and high class - sold in the finest restaurants around the world - get purchased from the remote rivers of western North Dakota?

The answer is simple: Paddlefish, and a partnership that recycles money back into the community.

“It’s still kind of hard to process,” said Scott Meske, president of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce, who moved from Wisconsin earlier this year. “You think high-end, New York, expensive, and you say North Dakota in the same sentence. . It’s a unique business. Unbelievable.”

The chamber partnered with the Friends of Fort Union/Fort Buford in 1993 to create the nonprofit North Star Caviar business. With help from the state game and fish department, the business harvests paddlefish eggs as a donation from anglers in exchange for cleaning the snagged fish free of cost.

The result has been thousands of dollars in grants to local nonprofit organizations, and increased preservation and education funding for the historical sites.

“It’s fairly significant,” Meske told the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1mhVUi5) of the impacts of the grants. “It’s not a multi-million dollar business.”

The sound of squeaking, clanging metal broke the morning air on a recent Saturday.

Far from the start of Band Day preparations, a group of National Guardsmen from Minnesota were lugging their first paddlefish snag of the day to the processing shack, located at the entrance of the Confluence campground.

“The little red wagon is back,” yelled Curt Ridle, of Dickinson, the fish processor at North Star Caviar this season.

In tow, the Guardsmen had painted a child’s wagon for their trip to Williston. On the sides it bore the event: Paddlefish 2014. Inside marked their brotherhood: the 134th Unit, which was covered up by a 30-plus pound male paddlefish.

Smaller than the females, male paddlefish don’t carry the valuable fish eggs, so they are filleted and given to the angler, along with a souvenir snout that is sawed off.

Paddlefish season beings May 1 every year and runs through May 31, but a 1,000-fish limit almost always ends the season early. The game and fish department typically calls the season around the 700 to 800 catch count, said site manager Bernard Voll.

When a female finally comes in, the process truly starts.

Ridle weighs the fish on a hook and slaps it on a measuring table to get its length, tag number and to cut out the bottom jaw. Rings on the jawbone are used to determine the age of the fish, similar to finding the age of a tree using its trunk.

From there, the eggs are extracted inside the shack by a team of people and moved to a sterile portion of the site, per Food and Drug Administration rules, which highly regulate caviar.

The caviar is moved to be flash frozen before being transferred to a cold storage facility for 60 days, where it is graded for sale.

Processed caviar is sold off to the highest bidder and attracts the most prolific caviar connoisseurs from New York and Chicago, to Japan, Australia and other countries. For the most part, the entire yearly supply is always sold.

“This is actually some of the best caviar in the world,” Voll said.

He’s in his third year managing the site, taking over after his wife stepped aside. The couple has tried to leave the caviar business multiple times since the state’s oil boom ramped up production and drove down the unemployment rate in Williams County to about 1 percent.

They own Executive Services, a staffing agency that helps companies find workers. Paddlefish season coincides imperfectly with the time of year their business booms, as workers return to North Dakota after the winter months passed.

Voll said there are challenges to the job and managing personalities - he jokes he always has to police the staff’s Dilly Bar stash - but helping the project’s goal to improve the community is what keeps him around.

“The whole concept of it is great,” he said. “We probably would have bailed if we didn’t believe in it.”

About 20 percent of the sold product goes to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to continue its management of the resource, education and research. Of what’s left, 50 percent goes to the historical groups, and the other 50 percent goes to the chamber.

Criteria for earning a grant are tough, but the basic guidelines are the project must be with a nonprofit organization and have a historical, cultural, recreation or resource-based cause.

Meske is hoping the project can build on itself in the future, but more for educational purposes.

The ancient paddlefish has long been a staple of the western North Dakota and eastern Montana areas, and the annual snagging seasons brings in hundreds of anglers, campers and tourists.

They’re here not just for the sport, but for the tradition of the outdoors, a tradition he hopes will continue to make North Dakota known for its outdoor life - and its caviar, of all things.

“It’s about the history of the fish and the river system and how the resource has been managed over hundreds of years,” Meske added. “To have this type of resource here is incredible.”


Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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