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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Kamchatka, 'Life Is All Poaching'

OKTYABRSKY, Far East -- 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, Godforsaken town near the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, 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 about 1,100 kilometers 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.

Its natural assets make it one of the richest regions in the country, but

Russia's poorly functioning economy provides little money to develop them.

Like 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 has received 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.

As in Soviet times, fishing - legal or otherwise - 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.

The biggest threat to the fishery comes from commercial ships that haul in fish without regard to legal limits in the three bodies of water that surround the peninsula: the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea.

Officials say Russian vessels working out of Kamchatka, Vladivostok and Sakhalin Island are depleting the region of crab, salmon and herring, among other species.

To avoid fishing limits, steep taxes and stifling bureaucracy, Russian ships commonly take their catch directly to Japan, where they can sell it at premium prices. "A business that tries to operate legally and pay its taxes cannot afford to stay in business," says Vladimir Burkanov, head of the regional agency in charge of protecting fishing resources.

Russia's rich fishing grounds also lure ships from other nations to fish illegally. Some pirate companies send several vessels at a time to fish nonstop and a shuttle ship to meet up with them, take their haul and deliver it to port.

While fishing remains the mainstay of Kamchatka's economy, officials are wrestling with how to shape the region's future and tap into its wealth of resources.

But harsh weather and a shortage of hotels make Kamchatka a tourist destination only for the wealthiest - or hardiest - travelers. Even at the height of the short summer tourist season, it is not unusual for restaurants in Petropavlovsk to close at dinner time because the city water supply has been shut off. To keep away cockroaches, one prominent hotel in the capital is known to spray pesticides in guests' rooms while they are out for the day.

For now, officials are investing little in tourist facilities and are trying instead to attract cruise ship passengers, who have no need for hotels, and big-game hunters, who expect to camp out.

Oktyabrsky, 150 kilometers west of Petropavlovsk, is as grim a town as any in Russia. The main street - a treeless dirt road - is strewn with garbage and lined by half-empty apartment blocks. The street is rutted and undernourished children entertain themselves by jumping onto the backs of trucks as they go by. Along the beach, dozens of men put their trubas into the sea and wait for salmon to swim close to shore. On the best of days, one truba can bring in a ton of fish. In a constant game of cat-and-mouse, the men are ready to run at the first sign of the police, who frequently come to issue fines and cut their nets.

"Whether or not you call it poaching, we don't have a choice," unemployed crane operator Alexander Belashov, 31, says as he watches over his homemade fishing rig. "We depend entirely on the sea. If we get some fish, we know we're going to survive. If we don't, God knows what will happen."