Patrols Target Illicit Caviar Trade

bloombergPolice searching a boat suspected of sturgeon-poaching on the Caspian, where Russia seized 334 vessels in 2007.
ASTRAKHAN -- Border guards in an Mi-8 helicopter swooped down on a blue fiberglass boat in the gray waters of the Caspian Sea along the frontier with Kazakhstan.

Three men in the unmarked vessel peered up then speed off before the chopper intercepted them. Hovering over the boat, officers looked for the sturgeon, whose eggs are the world's most expensive caviar. This time, their hold was empty and the men went free.

"Poachers drop all their catch into the water when they feel danger, and then you can't do anything about them," Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Trostoshenko, 48, who supervises patrols tracking the illicit fishing in the Astrakhan region, said as the helicopter headed farther out to sea.

Russia is stepping up efforts to stop the illegal trade in wild sturgeon caviar, adding anti-poaching patrols and raiding markets after banning exports to save the fish from extinction. That has pushed the price of caviar from other countries to records. The number of sturgeon worldwide has plummeted more than 97 percent in 15 years, the environmental group WWF says.

Sturgeon stocks were decimated as poaching went unchecked after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Dams on the Volga River reduced spawning grounds, and drilling for oil and gas disturbed their habitat in the Caspian Sea.

"Any kind of control was lost on the rivers and at sea," said Alexei Vaisman, the senior officer at WWF in Moscow responsible for TRAFFIC, the environmental group's efforts to monitor wildlife trade. "The situation is dramatic."

Patrols in the Russian sector of the Caspian seized 334 vessels last year, destroying more than 62 kilometers of nets, 63,000 hooks and 6.7 tons of sturgeon meat and caviar.

The sturgeon is one of the oldest fish in existence and grows to over five meters in length. Those in the Caspian, such as the beluga, yield about 90 percent of the world's caviar.

The black eggs, or roe, first appeared on the Russian royal table under Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Soviet production peaked at 2,770 tons in 1977.

Russia banned commercial sturgeon fishing in 2002 and stopped exporting wild caviar four years ago. Other Caspian nations, including Iran, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, still permit sturgeon fishing.

All of the countries except Iran have verbally agreed to a five-year moratorium beginning as early as 2009, said Andrei Krainy, head of the Federal Fisheries Agency.

Russian caviar sold abroad is illegal unless the container specifies that it came from farmed sturgeon, Krainy said.

"We don't export anything and won't be doing so this year, not a single egg," he said.

Harrods in London sells 50 grams of beluga caviar, the most prized variety, for ?435 ($860), a 60 percent increase since October. The caviar is produced in Kazakhstan.

At Moscow's Ritz-Carlton on Tverskaya, prices have doubled in the past six months, though it still serves 20 orders per day, says executive chef Chris Southwick. The hotel uses caviar from farmed sturgeon.

In addition to chasing poachers and raiding markets, the government plans to subsidize hatcheries to increase the amount of farmed caviar. Russia produced about four tons of farmed caviar last year, and that may rise to 100 tons within seven years as more people invest in the industry, Krainy said.

The government may also create a state monopoly that would control all aspects of the sturgeon trade.

Back on the water, inspector Alexei Yegorov spends eight hours a day patrolling two 55-kilometer passages in the Volga Delta and a 30-kilometer stretch of the Caspian he has supervised for eight years.

Yegorov, 52, searches the waters for poachers' nets and the lines with 7.5 centimeter hooks that are cast into the Volga Delta to ensnare sturgeon on their way up the river to spawn. Even after a seizure, the traps are usually back in place within a few days, Yegorov says.

Poachers, typically in groups of three or four, have three- engine boats that are more powerful than the patrol boats and use GPS devices to mark the location of nets, Trostoshenko said.

"It's like an arms race," he said. "The moment something new hits the markets, they have it, and then we catch up."

This season, between April 21 and May 15, patrols seized more than 30 vessels, he said. With poachers facing as many as seven years in jail, the crackdown is phasing out the illegal caviar trade, which peaked at $1 billion in 2006, Krainy said.

All contraband caviar is destroyed under a law that took effect in August, eliminating a loophole that allowed the sale of confiscated roe. While poached caviar is still available in Moscow for about 18,000 rubles ($760) per kilogram, it's harder to find, Krainy said.

Hundreds of people are still involved in illegal poaching on the Caspian. Fishermen can make as much as 1 million rubles in one expedition, compared with the 7,000 rubles per month the average worker takes home in Astrakhan, Trostoshenko said.

"They are scared," he says. "We keep destroying their catch and their nets, and snatch their boats."