Russian town poaches to survive

Sun Journal

Fishing: A region nine time zones from Moscow forms trade ties with its Pacific neighbors and takes advantage of its bountiful waters -- legally and illegally.

July 31, 1999|By Richard C. Paddock | Richard C. Paddock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

OKTYABRSKY, Russia -- From the beach where Vladimir Belov stands, he can see a dozen ships trawling for salmon in the Sea of Okhotsk. An unemployed plumber, Belov can't afford a fishing license. In fact, he has never seen one. But that doesn't keep him from fishing for salmon, too.

With a watchful eye for the police, the 39-year-old father of two sets out his homemade "truba" -- a 20-foot pipe with a fishing net and floats attached -- and waits for the only good luck his life is likely to offer.

In this desolate town near the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East, the residents have little to live on but the fish they catch illegally. Local industry has collapsed. Crops refuse to grow in the sandy soil. Stores have closed, and commerce is nearly nonexistent.

"Life is all about poaching," Belov says. "What do you think life is like when you don't get paid at all? If someone gave us the money, we would be out of here in no time."

Perched on the Pacific Rim 700 miles from Japan, Kamchatka is a land of missed opportunity -- a lush region of wilderness and lakes held back by seven decades of Communist dictatorship and seven years of capitalist greed.

Nearly as big as California, Kamchatka has fewer than 390,000 people and only 150 miles of paved road. It is much like Alaska in climate and terrain, and has a wealth of gold, oil and gas, as well as other mineral deposits.

With 28 active volcanoes, there is potential for geothermal power as well as abundant hot springs for tourists. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated five parks as the "Volcanoes of Kamchatka" World Heritage site.

Nine time zones from Moscow, the region is so far east that it is closer to Hollywood than to Red Square. But its culture, traditions and ways of doing business are distinctly Russian.

Russia's poorly functioning economy, however, provides little money to develop Kamchatka's natural assets. Towns such as Oktyabrsky sit in poverty and squalor. The spectacular beauty of wild rivers and erupting volcanoes provides a backdrop for rampant lawlessness.

As in the rest of Russia, prices in Kamchatka have skyrocketed, salaries have plummeted and goods have become scarcer since last year's financial collapse and ruble devaluation.

During the winter, residents in the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, shivered in near-freezing apartments because there was not enough fuel to run the city's centralized heating plants. In recent weeks, each household receives electricity for only three hours every other day.

In Oktyabrsky, anyone who could manage it has moved away, leaving behind only the destitute and the desperate.

"Life is so terrible here we're going to die like dogs," says a 20-year Oktyabrsky resident who gives her name only as Yulia. "But before we die like dogs, we're going to eat the dogs we have."

Kamchatka's economy has gone so haywire that much of its record 1998 salmon harvest went to waste. On the Bolshaya River near Oktyabrsky, dozens of Soviet-style work brigades conducted the same kind of industrial fishing operation they had for decades: Men in small motorboats placed their nets in the river and pulled them tight with tractors on the beach, trapping tons of fish at a time. Using cranes, they hauled the salmon out of the river and loaded them onto trucks.

Later, workers sliced open the female fish and extracted the rich, red caviar. But local canneries, run-down and poorly managed, could not process most of the salmon. Trucks dumped an estimated 50,000 tons of salmon in fields to rot.

Under Communist rule, Kamchatka's main economic function was to supply the Soviet Union with fish.

"Of course, this had a very negative effect on the development of the region and was one of the major reasons the economy was oriented to fishing and nothing else," says Vladimir A. Biryukov, a former Communist Party functionary who has been Kamchatka's governor since 1991.

With the Soviet Union's collapse and Russia's continuing depression, Kamchatka has developed stronger trade ties with some of its Pacific neighbors than it has maintained with Moscow.

Half the vehicles on the road are right-hand-drive cars bought used in Japan. Food and consumer goods imported from the United States and other Pacific nations are available, if expensive. Wealthy Americans visit by cruise ship or fly in to catch trophy fish and hunt Kamchatka's huge brown bears.

Fishing -- legal or otherwise -- still dominates the region's economy. Illegal fishing in Russia's Far East is estimated to bring in as much as $5 billion a year, an amount equal to nearly one-fifth of Russia's annual budget. Kamchatka -- jutting out from the Russian mainland into one of the world's richest fisheries -- figures prominently in the illegal trade.

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