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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poachers Ply Sea of Secrets

Stepping onto the Kuril Islands, one's first impression is one of collapse and despair. Rusting ship hulks decorate the shore. Dilapidated buildings toppled by a 1994 earthquake sit grumpily on the hills. But crawling out of the desolation like soldier ants are powerful Land Cruisers and their wealthy drivers. On the shoreline, new processing plants and refrigeration facilities are quickly being thrown up.

There's a buzz of people and money. But it's all gray money, lurking in the shadow economy, skirting official taxes the way poachers' vessels scoot around border guards' patrol boats. Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times reports.

KRABOZAVODSKOYE, Far East -- Russian sailors call it a "spider" -- a cyclone on a weather map fax. Before Pyotr Yakovlev went to sea one frigid afternoon last winter, a fellow captain handed him a spider, and a friend urged him not to go.

Yakovlev had a bad feeling about the trip, but he was under intense company pressure to sail. For the first time since his wife had known him, she pleaded with him not to go. He bade her farewell the way Russian sailors do: "Wait for me."

Sebastian Junger's book "The Perfect Storm," with its seaworthy boats and well-equipped daredevil rescue service, depicts vividly what it is to die as an American fisherman at sea.

But to write a Russian version, you'd have to take out the rescue service. You'd describe boats blistering with rust, plagued with engine trouble and lacking batteries for the emergency radio, and you'd recount the hair-curling shipwrecks nearly every sailor here has experienced.

You'd set it in the ruined town of Krabozavodskoye, whose name translates as "Crab Factory," in an illegal industry riddled with crime and corruption -- the kind of place where a captain's widow gets death threats and people speak in riddles, afraid to tell the truth about the high-stakes poaching business.

"The Russian boats look completely wild," said seaman Vladimir Smely, 41, the friend who had urged Yakovlev not to make what became his fatal journey. "They're old workhorses. You go into a port in Japan and you see this rusty piece of metal junk floating there, and it's all covered in seaweed, and there's this old sea wolf, the Russian captain. And his boat's docked next to these shiny white Japanese schooners, gleaming and clean, which glide across the water like sea gulls."

Smely's eyebrows shot skyward with amusement at his own description, revealing the tattoos on each eyelid.

Living on the Edge

Take a look at an atlas and it's hard to believe that the Kuril Islands, huddled like hatchlings under the wing of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, are part of Russia. Seized by the Soviets after World War II, they're still disputed territory.

The fishermen living on the edge of Moscow's empire do nearly all their business in Japan, racing their boats laden with contraband illegally into Japanese ports such as Nemuro and Kushiro, briskly selling their catch for yen, picking up supplies, making repairs and drinking sake and Japanese beer in port bars. They bring back Japanese televisions, videos and stereos and cheap memorabilia to hang on the walls at home.

In an industry based on criminal poaching of crab, sea urchin and other seafood -- and illegal deliveries to Japan -- the disappearance of Yakovlev and five other men raised uncomfortable questions for corrupt authorities involved in the business. There was no proper search for the sunken vessel, no thorough investigation, no memorial to the men who died.

"As soon as that boat touched the bottom of the sea and the surface of the sea went flat, it was as if everyone just forgot about it," Smely said. "This case had to be allowed to sink into oblivion, and it sank into oblivion."

Yakovlev's widow, Svetlana, her words spilling in angry torrents with her tears, said: "Everything is corrupt here. When my husband disappeared, someone called me at home and told me if I talked too much they'd kill me and my children."

She's filled with rage toward the men from Pallada Iturup -- the company that owned her husband's small schooner -- who came to the family home on the morning of Jan. 9, pressuring her husband to sail to Japan for gasket repairs.

Later that day, as Smely urged Yakovlev not to go, Valery Sadovnikov, from Pallada Iturup, was on board urging the captain to hurry up and get to sea to beat the bad weather.

Vladimir Manakov, the owner of the company, denies that the company ordered Yakovlev to sail, claiming that the captain went to sea without permission.

"Everyone is scared; everyone is silent because they're all poaching," Svetlana Yakovlev said. "The fishing industry here is rotten to the core. There are lies everywhere."

Although few others openly put their names to it, it's an incantation heard over and over from sailors and boat owners here in the Kurils, known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Sneaking Across to Japan

Officially, Russian vessels may go to Japan to sell their catch only if they have permission and pay taxes on the profit. Instead, the ships get permits to collect seaweed, then go poaching and sneak across to Japan with their haul.

So the taxes here are unofficial. One insider lists all the agencies that have to be paid off: At the top of the list are the border guards, who control access to the hungry Japanese market for sea urchin, crab, shrimp and other seafood. Insiders say you have to bribe the border guards $1,000 for each illegal crossing.

Then there are several government fish inspection agencies responsible for checking vessels for poaching. And it takes about $5,000 to $10,000 to persuade the agency responsible for registering and inspecting ships to overlook the rust and pass a vessel.

The sharpest point of contention in the industry is the quota system for catches. Until last year, the quotas were distributed by fisheries authorities, often on an inequitable basis. Now many quotas are auctioned in Moscow, but locals complain that the prices are now so high that they have been shut out of the industry, and the only way to work profitably is to poach.

Yet in the past, Russian fishermen have not been able to fulfill the quotas because everyone was so busy poaching.

Lost at Sea

Pyotr Yakovlev was crazy about small fishing schooners. He had to stoop to walk into the poky bridge of his vessel, known only as RSH 20-12, a battered Japanese schooner about 15 meters long with a water clearance of little more than 30 centimeters when fully loaded.

Yakovlev's last mission was not a poaching trip, his wife says, although like nearly everyone else here, that was how he made his living.

It wasn't the perfect storm Jan. 14, but it was too rough for a boat like Yakovlev's, according to Smely, who was at sea that day in the same weather. Snow flying through the air iced up the ropes, turning them into logs. The waves reached about 6 meters.

In its final hours, it's likely that most of the crew would have been crammed into the bridge with its captain. Only the mechanic would have been working desperately below on the engines.

But Yakovlev's gasket trouble was ruinous. The damaged, vibrating drive shaft kept shaking off the insulation lining the hull, and he had to stop the engine every 40 minutes to repair the leaks.

"That schooner was only designed to poke its nose out of a bay and rush back in, not to go to sea," Smely said. "For that boat, even a small wave would have been a problem because the hold hatches would have been dislodged and all the holds would have been inundated. Add to that the icing and the engine trouble."

Before his ship went down, Yakovlev made final radio contact with another captain on the afternoon of Jan. 14. Knowing that his fragile craft had little chance of surviving, Yakovlev approached a larger boat and pleaded to tie his craft to it while riding out the storm. The other captain rejected the request, saying the small schooner would be dashed to pieces against his vessel.

Border guard patrol boats were ordered to keep an eye out for the wreckage of the vessel -- four days after it disappeared.

Neither Russian authorities nor the shipping company informed Svetlana Yakovlev that her husband was missing at sea. She heard the news from his fellow sailors.

"We wanted to know who was in charge and who sent him out," Smely said. "He was a good friend of mine, and it was important for me to find out because no one else cares."

Treasures of the Deep

With deft fingers, fishing boat owner Yury Skuratov fanned out one of his illegally poached shrimp, sucked its caviar into his mouth with relish, ripped off the shell and legs, bit into the sweet morsel and gulped down a mouthful of warm Asahi beer.

"We caught these, but we're not supposed to have caught them," he boasted with a nonchalant grin. As warm shrimp juice ran down his wrists, he wiped his hands fastidiously between mouthfuls.

Skuratov lives on the edge, shuttling stolen sea products between Russia and Japan in his two schooners.

In this line of work, death nibbles at your elbow like a hungry fish. When he started out five years ago, a Japanese schooner accidentally rammed his rented boat. Water flooded in and within three minutes, only a small section of bow was afloat.

The only way to call for help was with the Japanese cellphone he was carrying.

Captain Alexander Malchenko, 38, chief of staff of the Shikotan border guard, says one of Skuratov's boats, the Alexandria, is "on our blacklist" as a frequent poacher.

Malchenko said the poachers are costing the government a fortune in avoided taxes and fees, while depleting the fish, sea urchin and crab populations.

The annual legal haul around the Kurils, 474,000 tons, is worth $700 million. Malchenko estimates $500 million more in fish is stolen each year in the area.

Victor Zuyev, 43, a fish inspector armed with a Makarov semiautomatic, said all the inspectors take bribes.

"They pay us for turning a blind eye to what they do," Zuyev said. "Everyone's afraid when I'm at sea. We don't answer to anyone. We're a big thorn in everyone's side, but no one can touch us. We do whatever we like."

Hot Pursuit

On the way out of Russian waters, with a hold full of illegal contraband, the situation is much more delicate because fishing boats must regularly radio their positions to border guards posted throughout the Kurils.

Svetlana Yakovlev says her husband would pick up electronic goods in Japan to grease the palms of border guards, a practice confirmed by others in the business.

But for those who are spotted by patrol boats, the game of cat and mouse begins. With border guards in hot pursuit, the offending vessel speeds away, dragging out the chase as long as possible, dumping the evidence overboard as fast as the crew can manage.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck job. The crates weigh 38 to 40 kilograms each. But if you work at it hard, you can dump 10 tons in an hour," Smely said.

It's too late for bribes, which are settled secretly in advance between fishing company owners, or their agents, and officials from various agencies. Sometimes the chases get nasty. A forlorn-looking ship named the Rodino lies stranded in Malokurilskoye port at Shikotan after its confiscation in mid-April by the courts following a madcap 24-hour chase. Border guards opened fire and strafed the vessel continuously, but the ship didn't stop until authorities in Moscow sent a military plane with orders to open fire. No contraband was found on board.

On Feb. 21, a schooner fled a patrol vessel from the Shikotan area north toward the Bering Sea, where a military plane opened fire. As the boat went down, the crew scrambled into life rafts.

The crew insisted that the captain went down with the ship. Authorities claimed that the ship sank not because of weapons fire, but because the captain scuttled it, disguising himself as an ordinary crewmember in order to escape.

For larger vessels operating farther north off the Kamchatka Peninsula, taking 70 or 80 tons of illegally poached crab, it's cheaper to scuttle the boat with the evidence than to pay an enormous fine -- based on load size -- and face jail, Smely said.

"Of course, it's a huge risk to the crew," he said. "You get an order from the very top -- not from the captain, but the company representative -- and you have to obey."

In a town where stolen fish are worth more than human lives, Svetlana Yakovlev is left alone with a daughter, Valentina, 11, and a son, Semyon, 14, to raise.