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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fish Piracy Fight Turns Fatal

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Far East -- The ports are quiet in the remote island of Sakhalin, just north of Japan. Fishing boats return home empty. Most canneries stopped operating years ago.

But further out in the waters off the narrow, green island off Russia's eastern coast, boats jockey for position to catch the region's valuable crabs and fish. The catches are destined for Japan, avoiding Russian ports, taxes and fishing quotas.

Vitaly Gamov, a career military man and commander in Russia's border guards, came here in November 2000 to fight that illegal fishing. His mission cost him his life.

In late May, attackers threw three flaming jars of gasoline through his kitchen window. He died from the burns a week later. His wife, Larisa, recently regained consciousness after five skin grafts in a hospital in Japan. Their 14-year-old son, Ivan, escaped unharmed.

General Gamov died trying to change the rules in a system that is built on the corrupt compromises between business and the government. President Vladimir Putin says he wants to break those links, but the roots run deep.

"Sakhalin has very big poaching problems," said Sergei Darkin, governor of the neighboring Primorye region. "Gamov fought hard against poaching."

In recent years Russia has lost control of the fishing industry. When the government imposed fishing quotas and tried to levy taxes on the profits of Russian fishermen, the fishermen responded by falsifying their records and delivering their catches directly to Japan and South Korea, where the buyers asked no questions.

A 2001 study by the World Wildlife Fund of illegal fishing in the Russian portion of the Bering Sea found evidence of illegal activities at "virtually all levels" of the industry.

The report estimates that fishing firms illegally strip $4 billion from the waters each year, "putting numerous marine species at risk and contributing to the collapse" of fish supplies.

The cash-strapped border patrol of which Gamov was a part is no match for the rich and powerful industry. One fishing company manager on Sakhalin said border guards would agree to ignore a poacher's boat in return for a $2,500 bribe.

Illegal fishing costs the government about $500 million a year in missed taxes, according to the State Fishing Committee.

Gamov made many enemies after arriving on Sakhalin. He agreed with the Japanese authorities that Russian boats in Japanese ports must tighten reporting on their catches. He set up more control stations at sea. Through his lobbying, the Sakhalin regional prosecutor began investigating 44 Russian fishing vessels flagged in an audit by Japan. "Gamov created a system that was closing the poaching flows in the direction of Japan," said Viktor Fokanov, a fishing company owner in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. "If you close the flow, poaching disappears. He knew how to do this, and he didn't have far to go."

In December 2001, Putin promoted him, making him one of the youngest generals in the Russian military at 39. The military had been his life. Even as a child growing up in a small town in Kazakhstan, Gamov was drawn to the army.

Those who knew Gamov socially said he was outgoing, treated his men with respect and worked long hours.

He he rose through the ranks of a system that had been deformed by economic crisis. Igor Barabanov, a lieutenant colonel on the Kuril Islands further out in the Pacific, served briefly under Gamov. He recalled lacking basics, like soap, and fruits and vegetables. Visiting superiors told him to "find yourself a sponsor."

"I was supposed to go to local businessmen and ask for financial support," said Barabanov, who now works as a security guard in the Primorye region. "It was humiliating. Some of them would just give money. Maybe they had served in the army themselves once. But others would want things in return."

Barabanov said that from 1993-96, "the border was completely open."

Some officers got rich. Others just got by. Gamov lived modestly in a third-floor apartment of a nine-story concrete-slab building on a pothole-ridden street in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Most here say criminals from a mid-size fishing firm were to blame, since the murder was clumsy and amateurish, like a warning gone wrong. The authorities have arrested three men believed to be the hired killers but have not answered the question of who hired them.

For Gamov's sister, Galina Spiridonova, his death remains a mystery. "The last time he came to visit, my brother was reserved," she said. "All of a sudden I realized that he was in danger. I asked what happened. Vitaly just said, 'They wouldn't dare,' and refused to discuss it."