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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Politics of Sturgeon

ASTRAKHAN, Southern Russia -- Here on the quiet banks of the Volga River, the political, economic and ecological crises threatening the Russian caviar business seem far away. Cows tread placidly along the shore, urged on by horsemen riding bareback, and fishermen ply and retrieve their nets in a timeless rhythm.

But the problems that now imperil the caviar industry are very much felt at the Rassvet fishing kolkhoz about 80 kilometers north of Astrakhan.

"The catch is bad and the price is too low for the fish", said Alexander Belyakov, director of the collective farm, a short man with weathered skin and a three-gold-toothed smile.

Fifteen years ago, a top day's catch for the kolkhoz was 5, 000 to 6, 000 fish. Now, on a good day, the nets bring in only 500 or 600 sturgeon. What's more, the fish are smaller by weight and some show signs of disease.

A combination of factors -- the breakup of the Soviet Union, the changing water-level of the Caspian Sea, man-made dams, rampant poaching and decades of unchecked pollution -- has devastated the sturgeon catch. In 1992, Russia exported only 600 tons of caviar, one-third of the 1991 level.

Leading Russian scientists and ecologists are beginning to question whether caviar fishing will survive at all in the Caspian Sea, which is the source of 90 percent of the world's sturgeon. Already, pollution has decreased the quality of some of the eggs and made the best-quality caviar harder to find. Scientists, however, insist that caviar from the Caspian is safe to eat.

Of immediate concern is an agreement with the five nations that now ring the Caspian Sea to end poaching and halt netting of the fish while they are in the sea. Netting in the sea prevents the fish from reaching breeding age and returning to the rivers to spawn.

"If the agreement is not signed, the catch will go to zero", said Vladimir Ivanov, director of the Caspian Fishery Research Institute, which sets the quotas for the catch in Russia.

At first glance the catch is not dramatic: The first few sturgeon are untangled from the net and unceremoniously thrown ashore. At a nearby cutting board, two women swing axes at the fish, quickly cut open the bodies and scoop out what will be the kolkhoz's take. An average-sized fish usually yields from 2 to 5 kilograms of caviar.

Meanwhile, about 20 fishermen from the kolkhoz, dressed in orange rain suits and black boots and looking like they stepped out of Repin's painting "The Volga Boatmen", drag the net into a tighter circle, pulling in scores more fish.

Working in what seems like a tribal ring, the fishermen shake and pull the seine. In the middle, fish of all color, shape and size thrash wildly in the water, trying to escape. Soon the catch is sorted. The sturgeon is singled out for special treatment.

The huge, snout-nosed prehistoric-looking fish, some black and white, others gray, are loaded into a boat and whisked off to a nearby refrigerator float from where they will be taken to nearby factories for processing and canning.

From March to November, when the water is unfrozen, the fishermen lay their nets three times a day. The kolkhoz receives 250 rubles (25 cents) per kilogram of fish, which includes the caviar. In fashionable restaurants in New York, Paris and Tokyo, the precious eggs alone can sell for $180 a kilogram.

"The price may be high at the restaurants, but for us it's very low", said Belyakov.

Whether the cause of the reduced catch is man-made or natural is a matter of some debate between environmentalists and government scientists. What is known, however, is that the Caspian Sea's water level has been fluctuating naturally for thousands of years and that the size of the fishing stock is related to the water level. In the 1880s, the water level was high. Then it began to drop several meters until hitting a low in 1980, the lowest level in 400 years, said Ivanov, of the fishery institute.

Sturgeons live most of their lives in the sea. At breeding age, which is 12 to 16 years for sturgeon and 16 to 18 years for the larger species Beluga, they return to the rivers to spawn. But with the water level so low during the 1970s, the banks of the Volga and the Ural rivers where the fish breed were dried and exposed. This, in combination with dams on the Volga that prevent the fish from swimming further upstream, took away vital spawning grounds.

In addition, less fresh water flowing into the Caspian Sea reduced the growth of the organisms on which the fish feed. The result is being felt now, said Ivanov. Today, fishermen are harvesting the generation of fish from the 1970s when the waters were reduced.

"These generations are the main stock right now and that's the main reason for the decline in the catch", Ivanov said.

The fishing stock is multiplied through an ambitious reproduction program begun by the Soviet Union in the 1960s that releases about 100 million fish each year into the Caspian Sea. Scientists estimate that about 30 percent of the catch is from the farm-grown fish, although they acknowledge it is hard to estimate.

They admit, too, that the program will never be a substitute for Mother Nature. The gene pool from the breeding program is the product of several thousand fish. But naturally, hundreds of thousands mix their genetics to provide greater diversity and strength to the species.

Ivanov said that the large percentage of farm-bred fish in the catch could be one reason that the fish are now smaller.

The waters have risen two meters since the 1980s, and are now approaching the level of 50 years ago, returning spawning grounds and reducing the salt-water content of the sea. The fish population, if other factors can be controlled, has a chance to return.

The politics of sturgeon could inhibit a comeback. The former Soviet Union was known for environmental problems, but it strictly controlled fishing in the Caspian Sea. With Iran being the only other country bordering the sea, it was easy to set and enforce quotas. More important, it was possible to ban the use of nets in the sea Sturgeon fishing was done only in the rivers

Despite privatization in other sectors, the government still controls the sturgeon and caviar business Private sturgeon fishing is illegal and defined as poaching, punishable by fines that have not been increased since the Soviet era and are hardly a deterrent. Poaching, Ivanov estimates, now takes one in 10 fish

He accuses the Azeris and the Turkmenis of netting in the sea, preventing the fish from reaching their spawning grounds A meeting in May of the five nations ringing the Caspian -- Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and

Turkmenistan -- failed to produce an agreement, despite general accord among Iran, Russia and Kazakhstan Another meeting is scheduled for Iran in August.

Ivanov sees the agreement as the only hope for the fishery.

"Its signing could be the basis for reasonable usage of fishing resources and preserving sturgeon for the next generation", he said

There are, however, some positive signs for the fishery: The steep decline in industrial production that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has checked pollution of the river

"Astrakhan and the Volga are the lavatories of Russia", said Yury Chuikov, chairman of the Astrakhan Regional Committee for Nature Preservation "All the big industrial cities on the Volga are dumping into it. The river contains all the elements" of the periodic table, he added

Serious pollution began in the river in the early 20th century and reached a peak during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1958, the largest of the Volga river dams was completed and disrupted the natural flow of the river

In 1965, Chuikov recalled, there was a huge fish kill, with tens of thousands of dead sturgeon lining the nver banks.

"Of course, it wasn't reported", said Chuikov. "We now know it was a break in the waste system for several defense plants upnver".

Even as late as 1978, Gazprom, the state natural gas monopoly, built a huge factory on the Volga It dumps its waste not directly into the river but into the surrounding steppe, and the waste eventually finds its way into the river, Chuikov said

Between 1978 and 1986, the uncontrolled use of pesticides and phosphates and the failure to follow environmental regulations trebled the water pollution level on the Volga, according to a research paper written by Pyotr Bukharitsin, of the Institute of Water Problems in Astrakhan.

But tougher environmental laws and enforcement have combined with reduced industrial output and rising water levels to improve the situation slightly.

"In Russia we have a saying", said Ivanov. "There is no bad without good".

Yet scientists say not enough is being done

The rams continue to flush fertilizers into the river and many industries, despite the efforts of environmentalists, continue to pollute the river.

In 1990, the Astrakhan Region was declared an ecological disaster zone. While scientists insist the caviar is safe, the river is classified as "moderately polluted, polluted or even strongly polluted", Bukhantsin wrote.

"We aren't doing any better, so we can't expect the fishery to be getting any better", said Andrei Polenov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, on a recent trip to the Rassvet kolkhoz to study sturgeon.

The fear is that the Caspian Sea could come to resemble the Great Lakes in America, which once had an abundance of sturgeon -- so many that colonialists fed caviar to their pigs. But overfishing and pollution took its toll and destroyed the stock.

"If this tendency for increased pollution of the Volga continues, the damage to the fishing industry will increase", Bukharitsin wrote "There is also the danger that Beluga and other valuable sturgeon species will be completely lost".