Between low-grade poaching and large-scale mafia plundering of sturgeon, which police are powerless to curb, illegal catches are eating up stocks in the Volga and Caspian Sea of the fish which produce prized black caviar.
Sergei studies and lives in Astrakhan, but his home is some 40 kilometres away from Russia’s caviar capital, in a village on one of the countless streams in the Volga delta, which stretches over 15,000 square kilometres. “I poach to make ends meet,” he says as he pushes his motor boat – the type the locals call “baida” – off the Volga’s white sand. Behind his back, the great river flows peacefully, a perfect illustration of nature’s relentless course that nothing can change – an impression that is completely false.
“In 1990, I caught up to 10 sturgeons daily. By 1996, I could still catch two or three every day. But last year, it took me a week to get as much,” the young man says. Official figures confirm his observations. According to the UN Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), official catches of Caspian sturgeon plummeted from 30,000 tonnes a year in the late 1970s to less than 3,000 tonnes 20 years later.
For Sergei, the explanation is simple. “Ten years ago, there were two poachers in my village of some 350 people. Now it’s a rare thing not to be a poacher. Collective farms and factories are closed, and people must make a living,” he says. However, besides the “social poaching” mostly tolerated by the state because of rampant unemployment, “commercial poaching” also takes its toll on the sturgeon resources. It was that underground industry that President Vladimir Putin labelled as “monstrous” during his recent visit to the region. This kind of poacher generally has a high-speed motor boat, sonar detectors and even special buoys that allow them to keep track of their nets with satellite positioning technology.
“How are we supposed to catch them?” asks Yury Tolstov of the public agency tasked with taking care of the sturgeon population in the Volga delta. “They have Yamaha and Johnson motor boats, each with at least 100 horsepower. We have only one boat,” he complains. However, small-scale poachers have a more cynical explanation, saying that the illegal caviar industry is well protected by accomplices in high places and has efficient export routes.
Officials are nevertheless cautiously optimistic as to the final outcome of their losing battle. The sturgeon population increased last year and the endangered fish was once again seen near cities such as Volgograd, Tolstov assured us. In addition, Tolstov’s agency has released 50m baby sturgeon bred in captivity, and plans an operation to pave the way for sturgeons attempting to move up river in May. He takes particular pride in a novel technique which would allow roe to be removed from female fish without killing them and used to breed more sturgeons rather than delighting gourmet diners in New York or Tokyo.
Tolstov’s quarrel is with a CITES-brokered moratorium on fishing Beluga sturgeon passed last June by Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but lifted in March after eight months. “This will benefit only poachers,” he scoffed. In any case, poaching – which, according to CITES, accounts for 90% of the caviar trade – has not slackened since, and caviar is on sale in Astrakhan markets for some $80 a kilogram, twice the price asked in the delta’s many villages, but still half as much as in downtown supermarkets.