Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Issykkul Poachers Out of Control

Poverty and corruption behind poaching that threatens Kyrgyz fish stocks.
By Aijan Rakhimdinova

The decision to impose a two-month ban on fishing in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan shows a new level of government concern about large-scale poaching which threatens a number of local fish species.


In the past, fish from Issykkul - the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca in South America - were famous throughout the Soviet Union, and older local fishermen remember when 17-kilogramme trout used to be caught in tributary rivers.


But as poaching has soared to massive levels, some species have practically disappeared from the lake. And fishing in rivers feeding the lake is now so intense that trout barely manage to grow to more than three kgs.


Besides the ban, which began on December 16 to protect fish during the spawning period, a team of inspectors is also attempting to deal with the problem.


But poachers themselves say the level of poverty in the region means they are prepared to risk getting caught in order to support their families “I simply feed my family with the gifts of nature,” one poacher, Bakytbek, told IWPR. “I have to live somehow.”


Others say corruption aggravates the problem, and many inspectors are themselves involved in poaching.


Lake Issykkul is home to 26 species of fish, seven of which are sold commercially. Bream and whitefish from the lake fetch up to 70 US cents at the market, pike-perch around a dollar and trout significantly higher.


As a result, competition amongst fishermen on Lake Issykkul can be fierce, as villages struggle to defend their own fishing areas.


A young fisherman from the village of Kuturgu, who wished to be identified only as Eldar, said the level of competition means disputes over territories can even descend into violence. “Strong fishermen come up to others and start fighting in their boats,” he told IWPR. “Sometimes they fall into the cold water, but they even keep fighting in the water.”


Poachers have long been active in the area. In the past they used to rely on hand-tied nets, which were time-consuming to produce. But more recently mass-produced Chinese nets have become widely available, and staff at the local bio-station estimate that in December – the breeding season for many fish and the peak season for poaching – illegal fishermen cast around 10,000 nets in Issykkul lake every day.


In mid-December, inspectors caught one man, 24-year old Danil Isakunov from the village of Chyrpykty, fishing with a kilometre-long net.


With fish stocks already hit hard by the closure of local fish processing factories and bad ecological management during the breeding season, poaching has proved disastrous. Species such as the osman, marinka and zherekh have practically disappeared, and the Issykkul chebachyok is also at risk of dying out.


When fishing inspectors monitoring the problem recently cast two nets with a total length of a kilometre near the village of Novonikolaevka, they caught just two fish.


Inspectors have the authority to levy fines for illegal fishing. The size of the fine depends on the type of fish a poacher is caught with – the charge for illegally catching a pike-perch or chebak is equivalent to almost three dollars, a whitefish just over five, a trout almost 11 and osman or sturgeon 16.


But as a result, poachers simply seek to avoid getting caught by working at night and fishing in groups.


“When we fish in groups the inspectors are afraid to come near, which saves us from unnecessary problems,” said one young fishermen, who admitted that confrontations between poachers and inspectors can result in violence.


“There have been cases of serious fights with them, when we beat up the inspectors,” he told IWPR.


“It is very dangerous to work with poachers,” confirmed Asylbek Tologonov, who is in charge of the state forestry service’s fishing inspection department. “Poachers take various weapons with them when they go fishing.”


Observers say many poachers are prepared to take risks simply because of the level of poverty in the region, especially in the winter months when local tourist resorts are empty and it becomes harder to find work.


“Some residents of the Issykkul region are so poor that instead of tea they drink carrot juice that is boiled until it turns red,” Indira Kazieva, a rights activist, told IWPR. “And instead of bread they eat ‘talkan’, a coarse grain. Who can blame them for catching fish?”


“We have nothing to eat, quite apart from the fact that we need to buy clothes,” said Bolot, a poacher from the village of Tyup. “I have five children… how will I feed them if there is nowhere for me to work?”


There is sympathy for the poachers even amongst those whose job it is to stop them.


“When you see the conditions they live in, you realise their situation is hopeless,” said Ulan Ashyrov, who works as a fishing inspector for the forestry service. “But what can you do, this is my job.”


Besides poverty in the region, observers say corruption amongst inspectors also lies at the heart of the poaching problem.


“Inspectors are thieves in uniform. They catch fish in enormous nets themselves and travel around the lake in motorboats,” Kamchybek, a poacher who has been catching fish with his brothers around Tyup for the last three years, told IWPR.


Ishenbek Soltonbekov, who works in the fishing inspection department of the forestry service, acknowledged the possibility of corruption amongst inspectors.


He said that some resort to poaching because the poachers they catch and fine are often unable to pay up, leaving the inspectors - many of whom are paid on a freelance basis out of the financial penalties they collect - with little or no income.


Aijan Rakhimdinova is an IWPR trainee in Bishkek.


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