Caviar Trade and What Ails Russia

Billion-dollar industry could help ease economic turmoil. But poaching, corruption, cut profits.

The river looked as if it were boiling with fins, there were so many hundreds of salmon swimming upstream to spawn in their freshwater birthplace.

All told, the eggs they carried within could yield caviar worth $2 billion - enough money to build hundreds of factories or cover a nice chunk of Russia's debts.

But neither Russia nor the salmon stand to benefit here. The river's banks are littered with remains left by poachers stealing the precious red eggs.

"I don't know anywhere in the world where officials wouldn't be concerned about such a loss," says Vladimir Shapoval, deputy governor of Sakhalin.

This island just 27 miles from Japan is Russia's main source of red caviar, a commodity as precious as its forests, oil, and gold.

A morose Mr. Shapoval expected the officially declared harvest of caviar and other sea delicacies this year to be 250,000 tons. This is half last year's yield - and maybe a third of what is thought to be netted annually by illegal fishing.

The robbed revenue is especially missed now that Russia is floundering on the verge of economic collapse. Its coffers are bare and under the current circumstances there is no way it can pay tens of billions of dollars of debt coming due within the next 15 months. The government is begging Western lenders for help. But Moscow has only itself to blame for poor policing and corruption.

The root of the problem on Sakhalin lay just yards from the fish cemetery - an empty military truck. The guard had left his watch post, leaving the field open for anyone to grab a few fish and flee.

Miles away, at the mouth of the river where the salmon leap from the ocean for their freshwater journey upstream, some large, dubious-looking men shoo reporters away as they approach the local inspector. The inspector nods at the men, looks nervously over his shoulder, and shows them a pile of salmon fished out of what was supposed to be a protected area.

"No questions," he says, suggesting that the journalists should leave.

Just up the road, the seacoast is filled with small processing centers where a smuggler can discreetly drop by with a sack of poached caviar to be jarred.

The situation is far more dire for the source of black Beluga caviar, the sturgeon swimming in the Caspian-Volga region in Russia's south. These unfortunate creatures could be extinct within two to three years because of severe poaching, experts say. The salmon, which produce red caviar, are more plentiful. They suffer less from overfishing because their eggs are not worth as much.

But they are valuable, along with sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and unique Sakhalin crab, which often end up on Japanese tables through illegal routes. Quotas assigned to fishermen are not often honored, officials say. It is hard to police fishermen when they are out on the deep sea, and vessels can easily slip out of Russian territorial waters for a handover of smuggled crab.

The statistics tell it all: Japanese customs officials report Sakhalin exported 108,000 tons of crab to their country last year. But the amount officially registered on the Russian side was just over 10,000 tons.

Aside from the financial question, there are ecological problems from uncontrolled fishing. Some sea cucumbers are endangered. Poachers who net crab destroy the habitat by dragging nets along the ocean floor.

The fishy smell of corruption extends to Kamchatka, the peninsula 500 miles northeast of Sakhalin, whose coasts are rich in all manner of marine delicacies. Authorities were embarrassed recently when a fishing inspector there was found to possess a large amount of foreign currency that could not have come from his meager wages.

"In every country there are criminals," says Stanislav Safronov, deputy director of Kamchatka's Federal Department for Production and Reproduction of Fish. He estimates that illegal overfishing - with or without collaboration of corrupt officials - was depriving Kamchatka of $2.5 billion to $4.5 billion in potential earnings.

Smuggling is good way to make a living in Russia's Far East, which is one of the poorest areas of the country. When Communist-era subsidies dried up in the early 1990s, fish-production enterprises collapsed. Even today, they have not overcome the crisis.

Kamchatka has another big problem - waste. The peninsula is plentifully endowed with fish, providing one-third of Russia's catch from the Far East. But it lacks facilities to take advantage of them fully.

Mr. Safronov warns visitors to be prepared for roadsides piled with fish carcasses. Even salmon caught legally often are discarded after removal of the precious caviar roe because of a lack of transport, deep freeze, and processing facilities. The meat that could be so easily salted and smoked is wasted.

"We're obliged to dump fish on the shores," he says, apologetically. "It's not a pretty sight."

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