ASTRAKHAN, RUSSIA — At 4:20 a.m., the only light through the trees was the headlights of the car bumping slowly along the dirt road that winds away from one of the broader bayous of the Volga River. But the car had not progressed more than 50 yards before an Interior Ministry policeman appeared out of the night to search the car.
His prey: fish eggs.
The Caspian Sea is the source of more than 90 percent of the world's caviar - the jam-like mass of tiny, greenish-black eggs of the sturgeon, recently declared endangered. Pound for pound, caviar is one of the world's most expensive delicacies.
Brakanieri, or buccaneers, who fish illegally at night and sell caviar to smugglers, now bring to shore at least as much sturgeon as do legal operations. The smugglers then sell it by the kilo out of suitcases and duffel bags in Moscow for perhaps one-tenth the price it would bring in New York. The quality is now often very poor.
More important, the bracanieri, with their own violent mafia organizations, are rapidly decimating the sturgeon.
It is a strange fish in a strange sea. The gigantic, prehistoric sturgeon is one of the earth's few survivors from the age of the dinosaurs. The Beluga sturgeon can weigh up to a ton-and-a-half, matures at about 18 years, and can occasionally live to be 150.
It survived the Soviet era of dam-building that cut off its breeding grounds. It survived the toxic wastes that Soviet industry shoveled down the Volga, sometimes raising the level of oil phenols and heavy metals to five or six times the levels deemed safe for public health. It even survived the underground nuclear explosions the Soviets toyed with nearby up through the late 1980s.
But that was the easy part. Now the sturgeon has to survive the lawlessness and disorder that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once the Caspian Sea was nearly enclosed by the central authority of Soviet Union, except for the strip of Iranian shore across the bottom.
Now it has five nations on its shores, all wracked with corruption and unemployment. In this environment, caviar-smuggling is out of control.
The latest threat
And just as poaching fishermen are pushing the sturgeon to the crisis point, another threat appears: oil.
The warm, shallow waters off the coast of Kazakstan are important ones in the sturgeon life cycle. Now oil ventures are preparing to drill the Caspian shelf there. Geological maps show oil fields scattered under virtually the entire Caspian seabed, the world's next great source of oil. If modern offshore drilling is anywhere near as dirty as Soviet-era drilling off the coast of Azerbaijan - where the water at Baku is still coated with a rainbow film of petroleum - then the sturgeon is finished.
"If the Caspian Sea becomes like it is in Baku, then the sturgeon will die," says Vladimir Ivanov, director of the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute, in Aatrkhan.
Most sturgeon breeding now takes place on one of seven fish farms in the Astrakhan region. But the sturgeon are not thriving. Because of their long life cycle, they are in a baby bust from the years of lower sea levels and more polluted water. Their numbers are one-tenth what they were 20 years ago, according to Dr. Ivanov.
So they are unusually vulnerable to the poaching industry, which by its very nature is disorganized and outside the sort of controls that could sustain the sturgeon population. In a year or two, says Ivanov, the whole caviar industry might have to be shut down to starve out the smugglers and allow the sturgeon to replenish.
But even if Russia could take such a step, four other countries are now with busy caviar industries of their own, legal and illegal. And they all need the money.
Deep in the 1,000-river Volga delta, the ramshackle town of Ikryanoye has lived off caviar for 200 years. Its name means caviar. Here, poor people ladle onto their bread black caviar that can run nearly $500 a pound in New York or Los Angeles, but they stay poor.
Many things in these parts seem to stay the same even as they change.
Witness the career of Lidya Vasilyeva, director of the local sturgeon research farm. She was a Communist Party department secretary, a senior position in the region, when the Soviet Union broke up.
But like many party activists, it turns out, she had an entrepreneurial streak. So she decided to become a scientist and used her prominent network of former party leaders to rent the sturgeon farm here.
Since the Soviets dammed the Volga in 1959, few sturgeon spawn in nature anymore. Most breeding now happens in fish farms like Ms. Vasilyeva's Bios, which was designed to develop new strains of sturgeon and new methods to improve caviar and sturgeon-meat production.
Help from the Communists
But since Russia is not yet a country where banks lend money to businesses, she soon found that the best way to get the investment she needed in new equipment was to convert her private enterprise back into a government-owned operation. Call it reverse privatization.
"I needed the capital," she says. So she called on an old Communist Party contact, who arranged a visit by the Russian minister of fisheries. The ministry, concerned with preserving the sturgeon species in fish farms like this one as poaching and pollution threaten them in the wild, guaranteed her support.
Now Bios is full of Rube Goldberg networks of stainless-steel chutes and flues where tiny sturgeon hatchlings swim farther downstream as they gain vigor and skill. There are oversize bathtubs of juvenile fish, and cement ponds where the prehistoric Beluga, Sevryuga, Osetra, and Sterlit sturgeon swim, along with some recently developed hybrids.
Vasilyeva says she can sell fertilized eggs abroad for 10 cents an egg. Local breeders can then raise the eggs into sturgeon for their high-quality meat. But Russian law does not allow the export of live sturgeon, or their fertilized eggs, which could be used to produce caviar abroad. So Bios has developed a hybrid sturgeon that is sterile. The fertilized eggs will produce just one generation of sturgeon, and no roe.
Even so, Russia's Ministry of Fisheries officials have balked at the export of any but tiny amounts.
Now she is hoping for the help of another old party contact, governor of the Astrakhan Province Anatoly Guzhvin. Mr. Guzhvin, the longest-serving governor in Russia, slid right through the transition from Soviet Union to Russia and from communism to capitalism. He runs virtually every aspect of life in this region.
Two years ago, he says, he thought that state power should not intrude in the marketplace. He has changed his mind. He saw that foreign investors were wary of being cheated by Russian partners and staying out of the region, so he began offering state guarantees to foreigners against losses brought about by their local partners. One American has already been reimbursed for a million-dollar investment in a failed brick factory, says Guzhvin.
"If I can get just a couple such deals, you won't recognize this place in a year," Vasilyeva says, dreaming of renovation and new equipment.
* Thursday: An Islamic revival takes hold in the Caucasus.