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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salmon Poaching Feeds and Bleeds Kamchatka

ReutersPoachers handling freshly caught fish near the town of Ust-Bolsheretsk.
UST-BOLSHERETSK, Kamchatka Region -- For a rare visitor to the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East, no other custom reveals more about the local economy, lifestyle and environment than salmon poaching.

Widespread illegal fishing in Kamchatka, home to a quarter of all Pacific wild salmon, has exploded in one of the world's last great wildernesses.

"Everybody poaches, everybody is a criminal," said Sergei, a self-confessed poacher who declined to give his last name, in the drab town of Ust-Bolsheretsk near Kamchatka's western coast.

"There are no jobs," he said, speaking reluctantly from the doorway of his riverside cabin.

His neighbor, Igor, agreed: "If you don't catch any fish, you go hungry."

Fishing industry experts estimate that more than 100,000 tons of salmon is poached in Kamchatka every year, and much is fished only for its red caviar.

Poaching is one of the biggest threats facing Kamchatka salmon, with two kinds of the fish already included in Russia's Red Book of species at risk.

Poaching is as central to the economy of this region as fishing is to its culture.

"As soon as we could walk, we started going to the river. Women and children go fishing too," Igor said.

While some people fish to eke out a living, for many others poaching has become a sophisticated and lucrative business involving modern boats, costly helicopter rides to rivers and well-placed connections among local authorities.

"Everybody is in it," said Valery Vorobyov, who heads one of Kamchatka's largest fishing firms.

Rampant corruption in Kamchatka's fishing trade, where cash can redeem any crime, reflects a post-Soviet decline in the peninsula's legal controls and policing.

By moving their precious load from one ship to the next, poachers take salmon, crab and other kinds of fish to Japan and further, evading maritime border patrols.

"Eighty percent of what's produced in Kamchatka and taken out of Kamchatka is fish," Vorobyov said aboard his fishing vessel in the enormous but crumbling port of Kamchatka's capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Illegal fishing is also a result of a depressed economy on Kamchatka, a militarized area with few developed industries that is heavily reliant on shipments from the mainland. Its secluded rivers and coastline have long been protected from development.

"Poaching today is a social evil. We need to eliminate the reason for poaching as it is a consequence of what happens here," said Alexander Krengel, head of the fishing department in the regional administration.

The poaching of Pacific wild salmon on Kamchatka, where all of the six kinds of salmon survive, threatens to damage the peninsula's unique environment.

This land, twice the size of Britain, is home to shimmering hot springs, noisy geysers and 29 active volcanoes as well as rare Steller's sea eagles, puffins and 12,000 brown bears.

"Birds and bears eat salmon, while salmon live only where the natural conditions are just right," says Gennady Inozemtsev, Russia program manager at the international Wild Salmon Center. "It's all part of one natural chain."

In this way, he adds, the salmon population reflects the state of the wider environment.

Local residents say bears have started attacking people, partly due to a lack of fish in some years, and the animals now come closer to villages and towns to rummage through heaps of garbage in search of food.

Rotting fish waste dumped by careless poachers poisons streams and rivers. The stench wafts through local settlements.

As reserves of wild salmon dwindle, fish lovers rely increasingly on farmed salmon. Out of 2.5 million tons of salmon produced every year across the globe, about 500,000 tons is wild salmon that is prized by fish eaters.

"Salmon is the economic and social core of Kamchatka -- it is its soul," said Margarita Kulakova of the Environmental Education Center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.