Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poachers Threaten Sakhalin Fishing Industry

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Far East -- Sakhalin's indigenous Nivkh and Aini peoples believed that Sakhalin Island was a huge fish or, perhaps, a seal. The northern part of the island was the head with the southern peninsulas the creature's tail flippers.

Now, scientists are warning that the island "fish" may be stripped bare of some of its watery brethren unless the booming business of poaching salmon and salmon roe - red caviar - can be somehow reined in.

That would be devastating for the vitally important local fishing industry, which could end up having a ban slapped on salmon fishing next year, said Valentin Lyubayev, general director of the Salmo fish hatchery at Lesnoye on the southeast coast of Sakhalin.

Just like the black-caviar-bearing sturgeon poached in the Caspian Sea near Astrakhan, the recent surge in unlicensed, and therefore unregulated, fishing is causing fish stocks to decline at a catastrophically rapid rate.

Local authorities have said they are planning to store 67,000 metric tons of salmon in 1999, a 2,000-ton increase over last year. But Sakhalin scientists warn that the 2000 spawning run will much lower than expected, at best.

Poachers have devastated Sakhalin's rivers in the last two years, so the fish are likely to be present in such small numbers that commercial fishing would be impossible next year, Lyubayev said.

In the first half of 1999, the Sakhalin region exported 42,600 tons of fish and sea products valued at $88 million, newspaper Sovietsky Sakhalin reported.

Since early August Sakhalin fishermen have stored about 25,000 tons of salmon, and it's likely that the salmon catch will total 80,000 tons this year, Sakhalin administration official Viktor Bogolyubov said in an interview given in the Sakhalin capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

About two-thirds of the fish in the Sakhalin region are caught off Sakhalin Island with the rest caught at the Kuril Islands.

Humpback salmon accounts for about 90 percent of the take and the rest is Siberian salmon, Bogolyubov said.

The spawning season normally starts from the second Sunday of July - a fishermen's holiday - and ends in late September at the Kuril Islands, when Siberian salmon lay their eggs.

This year, after a mere 90 tons was taken on the island's west coast, the locals fear the catch will be low. Normally, fishermen catch about 3,000 tons of salmon in that area.

Water in the west coast rivers was too cold for fish to enter for spawning so they shifted to the south. For salmon to mate, water temperatures must be between 8 degrees and 17 degrees Celsius.

Humpback reach sexual maturity in two years, while Siberian salmon need three years before they return back to the rivers for spawning. Thus, fishermen count odd years as salmon fishing seasons.

Unlicensed fishermen operating at the Lesnoye settlement on the southeast coast of the island hauled in up to 200 tons of salmon a day from the nearby Ochepukha River in 1998, he said.

To save the local legitimate fishing industry, Sakhalin region Governor Igor Farkhutdinov has resorted to a ban on uncontrolled access to selected rivers during the salmon spawning season from late July until mid-September 1999.

The ban has proved to be only partly effective because in some cases inspectors from the Sakhrybvod fish protection service and local police have been linked to the poaching in the past, officials said.

Sakhalin region coast guards have also kept busy, patrolling Aniva Bay on the southern tip of the island and the waters within the 200 nautical mile economic zone.

The navy arrests two to three poachers on the high seas each day and about the same number per week in the bay, Mikhail Shevchenko, Korsakov coast guard base commander, said on a military vessel at sea.

However, this does little to stop poachers, many of whom have few other options besides poaching because the economic dislocations of the past decade have ruined so much local industry.

Meanwhile, the fate of the confiscated fish cargoes is unclear. Sailors from the base said some of the haul was distributed among high-ranking officers with the rest disappearing.

The fish that authorities confiscate from poachers is supposed to be sold via a special network of firms in order to cover the state's costs. But poachers are often allowed to sell their illegal catches at market value and return the proceeds to the state budget, Bogolyubov said.

Market values for red caviar on Sakhalin are different than those for caviar for sale to the rest of the world.

Locals sell fish eggs for about 130 rubles ($5.20) per kilogram, while humpback salmon is traded at a bargain price of 5 rubles per tail.

In comparison, Sakhalin island-based fish factory Tunaycha sells raw fish eggs for $8 per kilogram to Japan and canned product for about $20 per kilogram to Russian customers, according to Anatoly Filippov, the firm's general director.

However, Sakhalin caviar in Moscow often retails for about $2 per 140 gram tin, or about $15 a kilogram. Sakhalin Island has 23 fish hatcheries which grow up to 30 million salmon fish eggs annually, Bogolyubov said.

About 40,000 tons of salmon is produced at the hatcheries and natural reproduction generates roughly the same volume, Lyubayev said.

Sakhalin island has the best salmon return rate in Russia, with up to 3.5 percent of the volume of fry (young fish) released to the sea returning, Lyubayev said.

"But Siberian salmon no longer reproduce naturally, " he said.

Siberian salmon are more choosy than humpback salmon, and the fishery industry does not have a reliable methodology to study its population, he added.

By not properly recording the size and time of their catches on the high seas, fishermen have made estimates about the fishery unreliable. Scientists have trouble calculating how many fish will return to the rivers for spawning.

Nevertheless, despite the poaching and the temptations salmon offer the local population to make at least some cash, islanders have strong protective feelings about fish resources.

"We will pump out all the oil, but the fish will keep coming back forever," Lyubayev said.