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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dagestanis Fish for Sturgeon, Caviar, Bribes

Each time you open a tin of Russian caviar, you become the final link in the illegal fish traffic that traverses half the world.

It all starts at the Russian shores of the Caspian Sea, where 90 percent of the worlds sturgeon lives, where the fish is caught and then shipped contraband through Makhachkala to Moscow. Here, the fish and its black caviar are processed and canned for further delivery.

Sturgeon and caviar are least expensive on the Island of Chechen, 15 kilometers east of the Dagestani shore. Wholesalers arrive by boat to buy the fish from poachers for $0.50 per kilogram and caviar for $7 per kilogram. Prices double once the goods reach shore; by the time they hit Makhachkala, Dagestans capital, the fish costs $2 per kilogram, the caviar $30. In Moscow, the price is four times higher than in Makhachkala.

Chechen is dotted with poachers camps. The men come for two days, staying in tents and dugouts, drinking heavily to keep warm in winter and fight fatigue in summer. They work in teams of four to six, running 12 meter-long boats equipped with engines that cost up to $15,000. "Were risking our lives at sea, and we better not skimp on the equipment," said Gadzhi, head of one team. Once a security officer, Gadzhi changed his occupation for one that is more profitable and risky. He pointed to two Kalashnikovs under a seat in the boat: "These are essential in our trade. We rarely use them but often show them to anyone trying to hassle us."

Six different Russian state agencies are charged with protecting Caspian Sea fish, including the State Fisheries Committee and the border guards.

"The border guards were a problem for us at first," said Magomed, a 27-year-old poacher. "But after the explosion of their building, they stopped bothering us." This 1996 explosion destroyed a building in the Dagestani town of Caspiisk; more than 80 civilians, mostly family members of Russian border guards serving in Dagestan, were killed. "Last May, we managed to shoot down a border-guard helicopter chasing our boats," Magomed continued. "It was our last serious conflict with them. Those border guards are just Russian boys sent to serve out their army duty here in Dagestan. What they want most is to return home safe. So they behave themselves accordingly."

Its clear why the stakes are so high in Dagestan: Fishery helps thousands of Dagestanis survive. Once there were dozens of state fishery collective farms and smokehouses all over the Dagestani shore, employing many during the Soviet period. Today, most are closed; the rest were privatized by local nouveaux riches and top republic officials. The industry lost its legal framework. Sturgeon fishing and processing are supposed to be licensed by Dagestans Fisheries Committee. But according to a recent press release, no such licenses have been issued this year.

Suleiman and his team decided to check their nets. The sea water was cold, but two poachers, Sergei and Oleg, donned wet suits and jumped in the water. "Those Russians are born fishermen," Gadzhi said. "In winter, they can spend hours in ice-cold water. We Dagestanis dont dare. But the Russians just gulp a large shot of vodka and jump in."

The haul brought in over two dozen sturgeon, weighing, Suleiman estimated, 300 kilograms. "Earlier, when the Communists forbade sturgeon fishing we often caught beluga weighing 200 kilograms and more," he recalled. "Now, with hundreds of teams like ours fishing day and night, such specimens have disappeared."

But the team would have to share the spoils. "One third will go to our police krysha," Gadzhi explained. Every team must have a patron protection among law enforcement and state officials. Sometimes poachers pay cash for protection, but they usually pay in fish and caviar. "You wont get ashore safely if youre not protected," Gadzhi said as we approached land. "The police keep a really close eye on the shore."

He was right. Five police officers with Kalashnikovs lazily awaited our boat. After heated explanations, Gadzhi tossed the commander a slip of paper with a telephone number and asked him to make a call. Several minutes later, after the call was made, we were told we were free to go.

Our car, loaded with contraband fish, was stopped at a police checkpoint near Makhachkala. One officer followed us to the house of Gadzhis team patron, where the poachers unloaded some of the fish.

Then wholesalers were waiting for us near the city market. The deal lasted less then a minute. There I saw one of my Makhachkala neighbors. "We sell some fish and caviar here in Makhachkala," he said. "But the greater portion is delivered to Moscow, usually by air, but sometimes by buses and trains. The cost of delivery is 50 cents per kilogram of cargo to the pilots ."

This state of affairs is certainly strange. No one can fish without a license. Licenses are not being issued by the state. In the meantime, sturgeon and caviar are served openly in restaurants and sold in markets. The Russian budget receives nothing; everything goes to officials as bribes. Investigations conducted in 1999 by the Prosecutor Generals Office and the Audit Chamber revealed that this illegal fishing turns over from $2 billion to $4 billion almost one-sixth the Russian state budget.

The Anti-Poaching Department of the Dagestani Interior Ministry reports that only 129 kilograms of caviar and 43 tons of sturgeon were confiscated from poachers in 1999 an amount one team can haul in a good month. Colonel Kainbek Gadzhibalayev, the department head, complained: "We dont have boats as powerful as the poachers. Coordination between fish-protection agencies is very poor. The punishment doesnt match the seriousness of the crime. We cant arrest people, so poachers arent afraid of meeting us at the shore red-handed. We cant even legally force them to pay for damage. The local authorities adopted a law forbidding the export of sturgeon out of the republic in January 1999. But they forgot to introduce articles regarding penalties for violations of the law," he added.

Colonel Sergei Bondarev, head of the Dagestan border-guard regiment, concurred: "We can only confiscate the nets and boats. The problem of bribes is also very serious. I had to dismiss and punish several officers for taking bribes for letting boats go out to sea. Now Im the person ultimately responsible for permitting any vessel to leave shore."

After my trip to Dagestan, I returned to Moscow. As I was retrieving my luggage at Vnukovo Airport baggage claim, I saw that many bags were smeared with fish slime. The baggage handlers quickly scooped the large plastic bags stuffed with fresh sturgeon from the conveyer belt and delivered them to a minivan at the airport entrance. I saw a man I recognized a classmate of my sister directing them. Dagestan is a very small world.

I noticed two 50-liter containers inside the minivan. "Hey, Jemal," I said to the man, "I bet those are full of caviar."

"Sure. You win the bet," he replied.

But the Moscow policemen around us were busy with their own fishing for schools of unregistered Caucasians in the human stream flowing through the airports gates.

Nabi Abdullaev is a freelance journalist working in Dagestan. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.