SUTTER COUNTY (CBS13) — California wildlife officers made a massive bust on the Sacramento River, cuffing nine men who are suspected of poaching sturgeon and selling their caviar on the black market.

Sturgeon are considered a “species of special concern” in California. State wildlife officers say they watched these criminals in the dark of night using young salmon as bait.

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Additionally, investigators turned up illegal guns, counterfeit cash and drugs on top of all that stolen sturgeon.

“It’s been a few years since I remember something quite this big,” said Cpt. Patrick Foy with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The monster poaching operation was unraveled in Sutter County.

“These people were not only engaged in sturgeon poaching, but we also found drugs and machine guns and assault weapons and more drugs and counterfeit currency and lots of cash,” Foy said.

The nine suspects—all from Sacramento—were arrested on a host of charges. The following suspects are now all facing charges: 31-year-old Andrew Chao, 35-year-old Ay Pou Saechao, Huan Van Nguyen, 72, of Elk Grove, Lai Chow Saechao, 34, Ou Hin Saetern, 37, Sengon Saechao, 32, Andy Serncho Saephanh, 35, Nai Fow Saechao, 39, and Choy Gwen Saephan, 32, all of Sacramento.

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In all, investigators believe 36 female sturgeon were stolen at various locations along the Sacramento River in Sutter County and their eggs sold as caviar on the black market. As wildlife officials explain, the market is lucrative.

“A fish coming right out of the water with a big female with lots of eggs is going to be, you’re talking $5,000-$6,000,” Foy said. “They do sell the caviar, usually either by the ounce or by the pound, and we’re talking about thousands of dollars.”

Images from the Department of Fish and Wildlife show some sturgeon eggs in a refrigerator, sturgeon meat in the freezer, and even swiped sturgeon in the trunk of the suspect’s cars.

“The overall length was 91 inches. It was a really big fish, hundreds of pounds,” Foy said. “They saved that fish. They brought it down to the river’s edge. They worked with it. It hadn’t been out of the water long, so they were successful in getting it back in the water.”

With the men set to appear in court soon, wildlife investigators want this case to serve as a message to the public.

“This is a very high priority for us,” Foy said.

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Wildlife investigators say another disturbing part of these crimes is a large amount of litter. They say the suspects tossed empty beer cans and food wrappers into the Sacramento River while trying to reel in the fish.

Adrienne Moore