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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Baikal Fishermen Frozen Out of Tradition

MTSergei standing with his daughter near idle fishing boats on Olkhon, an island in Lake Baikal. "It's unfair that there is no way I can catch fish legally," he says.
OLKHON ISLAND, Irkutsk Region -- Like most men on Olkhon, a 70-kilometer-long island in Lake Baikal, Sergei describes himself as a fisherman.

He wakes up at 5 a.m. to set off in a motorboat gliding across the calm waters of the lake. After the onset of winter, he heads out on the ice in the total darkness, plunging his net through a hole to catch omul, a silvery member of the salmon family unique to Baikal.

Sergei, 37, is doing something that he has done his whole life.

However, an amendment to the federal fishing law in 2004 changed his status from fisherman to poacher. omul numbers are so low that it is now listed as an endangered species. Catching it is only allowed with a fishing license not available to local residents.

The license is required per amendments to the fishing laws introduced by the State Fisheries Committee in November 2004, but the regional authorities have only issued a single license, not to an individual, but to a plant employing 10 people.

For the island of Olkhon, used to surviving on the fish, this is a serious problem.

"Of course it's unfair that there is no way I can fish legally," said Sergei, who, like all fisherman interviewed for this article, refused to give his last name for fear of retribution from the authorities. "But if I am doing something illegal, it's absolutely fair that I get fined. It's the inspector's job to fine me, they have a quota to meet too ... but I am not going to stop fishing."

Marina Kamenev / MT
Omul being offered for sale in Olkhon. The fish is considered a delicacy in the rest of Russia, but it is sold in any market and along roads around Lake Baikal.

Omul is considered a delicacy in the rest of Russia, but in Baikal it can be purchased in any market and along most roads in the region.

Depending on the catch, which ranges from 200 to 1,000 fish per day, Sergei will freeze some, eat some with his family, and either smoke or sell the rest of the catch to winter season tourists.

Last year inspectors nabbed him, and the fine of 250 rubles per fish meant he had to pay a total of 37,000 rubles, along with being banned from fishing in Baikal for six months. Sergei has ignored the ban.

Part of the problem for locals is that the Olkhon Malomorsky Fish Factory, privatized five years ago, is a mere shell of what it once was. In Soviet times, the local processing facility took care of smoking, preserving and canning fish, as well as sometimes of even transportation. The plant provided income both for its workers and for fishermen who could sell the plant some of their catch. This changed in the 1990s, however, when the factory was privatized.

Marina Kamenev / MT
Gorbunov says he stopped fishing illegally five years ago because he found it demeaning to beg inspectors for mercy.

Now three women sit inside an empty warehouse gutting fish, and stray dogs roam among the rotting boat carcasses, scraps of old cars and abandoned buildings.

The fishermen employed by the factory are the only people on the island allowed to catch omul. Not one of them would agree to an interview, saying they had no comment. The plant's director was away, and staff would not provide any contact information.

Sergei had a job there smoking the fish, but when the factory was privatized he started fishing on his own, drying and smoking the fish himself.

"This is not right," said Vasily Smirnov, a specialist on omul at the Baikal Museum in Irkutsk. "A quota exists for how much omul you are allowed to catch, but because there is so little omul, even the factory is not meeting its quota."

The quota for the amount of omul allowed to be caught has dropped every year. In 2006 it was 2,400 tons a year, in 2007 it was 2,100 tons and in 2008 it is likely to drop to 1,800 tons.

"The locals will continue to fish, but because they can't do it legally, it all goes on unmonitored, and even more of the species are depleted," Smirnov said.

Marina Kamenev / MT
Fishermen employed by the Olkhon Malomorsky Fish Factory, pictured, are the only islanders allowed to catch omul.

Yevgeny Petrov, deputy director of the Eastern Siberian Fishing Research Institute said poaching was the biggest threat to the species. "Omul is difficult to count anyway because three different types of species exist, all breeding in different parts of Baikal."

Petrov explained that the largest species was unthreatened because around 5 million remained, but that determining the breeding patterns of the other two was difficult. "Part of the reason the species is depleted is that the fishermen catch them before they breed. There are about 20,000 to 26,000 tons of omul in the water today." The figure was 80,000 tons 30 years ago.

"Now when I see inspectors, we just run and hide behind the rocks. Once I hid the fish, but the stray dogs ate them," he said, laughing.

Sergei Gorbunov, 35, has not fished for the last five years and now works as a driver at a hostel. "I used to work as a driver for the factory when it was bigger. I would sell my fish to them, but now they don't buy it.

"It just got to the point that it was demeaning," he said. "If you got caught you would have to beg and plead on your knees imploring the inspectors, 'This is for my family who is starving.' Maybe they would let you go."

Gorbunov describes the lifestyle on the picturesque island, with its own microclimate, as unique. From mid-December to January, as Baikal freezes over, the ferries that deliver groceries to Olkhon and take passengers and cars to and from the island, stop working. Students that have to go home to Olkhon for New Year's festivals drag plastic floats across the frozen waters and jump into them as soon as the ice breaks.

Gorbunov said people buy out supplies in the grocery stores. "They are empty by New Year's Eve," he said. During this time of year omul is a particularly vital source of food.

The State Fisheries Committee does allow for recreational fishing without a license, but many of the fishermen complained that fishing for omul without a net was difficult.

Marina Kamenev / MT
Smoked omul is a popular treat among people living around Lake Baikal.

Greenpeace thinks that poaching in the area is not properly monitored. "Hardly anyone gets caught, while absolutely everyone fishes. It would seem that the inspectors just try to meet their minimum criteria," said Roman Vazhnekov of the Greenpeace Russia Baikal Campaign.

"It's like everything in Russia, the law exists, but people circumvent the law," he said.

The State Fisheries Committee said 138 people were fined in 2005, 285 people in 2006 and 257 during the first 10 months of last year.

A former fisherman who would not give his name said the situation was dire. "What kind of cruel person would think up this law to stop locals fishing on an island?" he said. He now works as a carpenter, but twice a week catches fish with a net at night.

"I don't understand what the government is trying to do. They will throw all the men caught fishing on this island into jail. In turn, their wives will fish, they too will go to jail. Then what? Are the children just going to starve?" he said. "If I see my daughter crying because her stomach is rumbling, and an omul is swimming in the waters, only a hands reach away, of course, I will catch it. It's stupid to think I would do otherwise."