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

Poachers Decimate Sturgeon Stocks

Corruption, bureaucracy helps caviar poaching to flourish in the Caspian.
By Musa Musaev

At the point where the river Sulak meets the Caspian Sea lies a place known as the sturgeon-poaching capital of Dagestan.


The village of Sulak looks like any thriving fishing port, with nets lining the main dusty road and boats dotting the bay. But all the fishing here is illegal.


Every day large boats called “baida”, pull up to the dock, load up with huge petrol canisters then travel more than 300 kilometres offshore. They are forced to go so far out to sea as over-fishing has decimated stocks closer to land.


“There are no fishermen here, only poachers,” one man told IWPR as he loaded his boat with supplies.


As sturgeon fishing is supposed to be a state monopoly, the poachers are secretive about their business, warning a journalist not to take photographs. However, corruption, the lure of big profits from the caviar trade, and bureaucracy make a mockery of government regulations.


Most insist they are not in this line of work by choice. The once bustling collective farm where their fathers and grandfathers worked no longer exists; the local fish cannery is still functioning, but is on the brink of bankruptcy.


Despite their professed reluctance, most are familiar with the biology of the sturgeon family, their seasonal movements, and where the caviar-rich females are to be found.


An average poaching boat costs about 10,000 US dollars, including two 200-horsepower motors and huge nets. They are equipped with acoustic tracking instruments which detect the concentration of fish under water.


For each trip out, the poachers must pay protection money of close to 1,000 dollars. The cash goes into the pockets of local gangs with ties to government officials.


Even so, the kickbacks cover them only on land – the racketeers are not responsible for anything that might happen at sea.


The work is risky and physically demanding. The poachers' palms have turned into a thick, hard rind of calluses from hauling heavy nets out of the sea.


The number of fishermen who do not come back from sea rises each year. An average of twenty villagers from Sulak die from accidents annually, the poachers say. Their boats get stuck in ice flows or storms. Sometimes gangs looking to extort more money shoot at their motors.


Vitaly, 45, remembers the old times. “To catch sturgeon, I didn’t need to go 200 km out to sea. I did it with a fishing line and big hooks, right here from the shore,” he said.


But now a one-tonne catch of fish is considered outstanding. Usually, the fishermen are lucky if they catch just a few medium-sized sturgeon. If a fish weighs less than ten kilogrammes, the poachers say they throw it back.


Despite the hardships, skyrocketing prices for the prized black caviar – the eggs of various species of sturgeon - mean the illegal trade is still lucrative.


One kilogramme of caviar costs as much as 170 dollars in Dagestani markets. Outside the republic, the prices are far higher.


Prices for sturgeon itself also keep rising – four dollars a kilo in Dagestan and often several times that in other Russian cities.


There seems no political will to combat the poachers seriously. Government departments set up to deal with the problem are entangled in a web of overlapping bureaucracy and utter confusion.


The head of the Dagestani interior ministry's department for the fight against water-resource crimes, Colonel Gaibek Gajibalaev, told IWPR, “There are about ten departments which deal with protection. Generally these are subdivisions of [Russian] federal bodies. I think that the work of the various departments is coordinated, but just not at the right level.”


“It is hard to count how many unnecessary departments there are in Russia for the protection of fish reserves, none of them accountable to anyone,” agreed Pir Musaev, head of the department of the Caspian Scientific Research Centre at the Institute of Fishing. “They all do what they like.”


The lack of a serious approach among Caspian littoral states to stopping poachers - particularly with neighbouring Azerbaijan - is seen as another big hindrance. Scientists are also concerned by an increase in ctenophora, invertebrates commonly called sea walnuts, which eat the food base of the sturgeon.


As a result, sturgeon numbers in the Caspian plummeted from 145 million in 1976 to 42 million in 1998, and there are believed to be even fewer now. Adult stocks have been significantly reduced, said Musaev, who is working with an institute in Astrakhan, a town on the northern shore of the Caspian, rearing stocks for fish farms in an effort to slow the decline.


Experts say the lack of a coordinated government effort to combat poaching makes any attempts at enforcement ineffective. Legal regulations are also poorly developed, according to the commander of the Caspian border department of Russia’s FSB security service, Colonel Alexander Komul.


“Let's say there is a six metre-long boat in someone's garden which borders on to the river, with two 200 horsepower motors. But the law is such that we don’t have the right to seize it,” he said. “We can only catch the poachers red-handed. And chasing each boat while it is fishing illegally doesn’t justify the cost.”


Still, Dagestan's interior ministry claims some success. It said that from the beginning of 2005 to July 15 alone, 16 large vessels, including seven not registered in Russia, and 157 smaller boats were detained. Almost 337,000 roubles, about 12,000 dollars, were handed out in fines, with 35 tonnes of illegally caught seafood were confiscated.


Musa Musaev is an IWPR contributor in Dagestan.