Russia to poachers: Hands off the caviar

June 12, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ASTRAKHAN, Russia -- They're tough-looking customers, and very primitive. They weigh a ton, hardly looking as if they need the Kalashnikov-toting bodyguards that surround them now.

Yet, about 600 of Russia's crack special forces have been deployed here to watch over these bruisers, who nonchalantly carry one of the world's daintiest delicacies.

This is the time of year when the hulking Russian sturgeon swims up the Volga River from the Caspian Sea to lay the eggs that yield some of the world's finest caviar.

Once the personal property of the czars, then monopolized by the Soviet government, caviar has now drawn the attention of new masters -- the mafia.

In May alone, the mafia made off with more than 10 tons of sturgeon and three tons of caviar valued at $2 million, local officials estimate.

The mafia catches sturgeon on the unpatrolled Caspian Sea or dodges soldiers on the Volga with speedboats, then processes the caviar in underground factories here,putting it in cans that look exactly like the government's.

While the government has largely ceded control of business throughout Russia to the mafia -- which is often a partnership of government officials and criminals -- here in the Volga delta the national leadership has chosen to take a stand.

Millions of dollars in potential revenue lie waiting in the peaceful waters downstream from Astrakhan near the mouth of the Volga. If the government loses its control over the caviar industry, all that badly needed hard currency could flow away as inexorably as the tide.

The mafia poachers are not only undercutting the government, but they are also taking too many fish, threatening the industry's long-term survival.

"It is hard to imagine the environmental and economic damage from poaching on the Caspian Sea," said Alexander Frolov, an Interior Ministry official who oversees the fight against organized crime.

This is why, on a bright warm day, an officer from Russia's elite OMON troops finds himself on high alert, suntanned face trained on the powerful, glistening Volga. His Kalashnikov submachine gun at the ready, he is guarding fish.

The officer, long on muscle and short on words, did not care to give his name. He was sent here in mid-May when the sturgeon season began.

"The first day I was upset," he said. "My job is to fight terrorists and armed criminals. And here I was," he said, gesturing at a quiet collection of four fishing shacks on the otherwise deserted riverbank.

Within hours, however, he began to feel needed.

"People began arriving offering us everything -- rubles, dollars, vodka, women, even a dog. They wanted us to let them buy sturgeon from the fishermen -- not to steal it, to buy it for the going price."

It is illegal for any private citizen to catch a sturgeon, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

According to several reports, the government is spending $500,000 to station the 600 elite OMON and hundreds of other troops here for the fishing season; local police are considered too susceptible to bribes.

The troops have already found two factories illegally producing about 75 pounds of caviar a day. Authorities estimate that the troops may save up to 200 tons of caviar, which in the West can sell for up to $50 an ounce.

But the poachers aren't the only ones guilty of ruining the caviar industry; governments also share the blame.

Before the Soviet Union fell apart,Iran was the only other nation taking sturgeon from the Caspian and making caviar. Today, the independent countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which also border the Caspian, want their own caviar.

"Now the controls are gone," said Anatoly D. Vlasenko, deputy director of the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute in Astrakhan. "And the number of sturgeon has dropped dramatically."

He estimated that the sturgeon population has dropped over the past three years to 100 million from 150 million.

The institute has sought to preserve the industry by proposing catch limits for each of the nations on the Caspian.

"They agreed officially with the quotas we recommended," Dr. Vlasenko said, "but unofficially they keep fishing."

If the nations go on ignoring quotas, he said, the fish will simply die out, as it has from most of the rest of the world. But most of the post-Soviet republics are too worried about today to think about tomorrow, he said, and they don't exert enough control to observe any agreement.

Another problem hitting the sturgeon is sea fishing, Dr. Vlasenko said. Most sturgeon caught from the Volga are mature, but when the sturgeon are caught at sea, immature fish are swept up as well, decimating the population. The beluga sturgeon, which can grow to 13 feet and weigh up to a ton, takes 20 years to mature and lives to 70. It only bears eggs every four years.

The current woes could very well finish off an industry already weakened by official ineptitude. In 1959, the Soviets built a huge hydroelectric dam across the Volga near Volgograd, which reduced the spawning grounds by 95 percent.

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