Troubled waters

Mafia gangs have stolenso many sturgeon from the Caspian Sea that this ancient fish is now facing extinction. An no sturgeon means no caviare.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The sturgeon, the long-snouted fish which produces the shiny dark eggs which are sold as caviare, is one of the more surprising casualties of the break up of the Soviet Union. It has long flourished in the Volga river and the Caspian Sea, but within two years, it may be poached close to extinction.

The sturgeon, the long-snouted fish which produces the shiny dark eggs which are sold as caviare, is one of the more surprising casualties of the break up of the Soviet Union. It has long flourished in the Volga river and the Caspian Sea, but within two years, it may be poached close to extinction.

The problem is simple enough. The sturgeonwas already under pressure in Soviet times. Itcould no longer reach the upper stretches of the Volga because of hydroelectric dams. Its high value abroad made it an obvious commodity to smuggle. Then, in 1982, the deputy Minister of Fisheries was executed because of his involvement in a scheme whereby caviare was secretly exported in tins marked salted herring.

But the death knell of the sturgeon was the emergence of three new states - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan - on the shores of the Caspian, and the break down of security in Russia itself. Iran is considered by Russian experts to be the only country on the Caspian making a serious effort today to control poaching.

In Astrakhan, the Russian city just north of the Volga delta, you seldom see caviare openly on sale. But taxi drivers hardly bother to find out where you are going before asking if you would like to buy a kilo of the country's most famous food product, packed into copper-coloured containers which look like soup dishes. The going price for a kilo earlier this year was about £20.

Down at Astrakhan's Caspian Fisheries Research Institute, Dr Vladimir Ivanov, who has followed the fortunes of the sturgeon for 30 years, has a defeated look. Speaking bitterly of the smugglers, he says: "There are fewer and fewer fish which escape their nets. I expect real shortages to start next year." Many of the fish are caught by fishermen in the }

delta. But the real danger comes from boats using nets in the Caspian. Dr Ivanov says that most of the fish they catch have no eggs, and are thrown over the side of the vessel. Many of these boats are too fast for the ones used by local fishery protection officials, who are, in any case, widely assumed to be in league with the poachers.

There is another reason why local officials are unenthusiastic about catching up with the poachers. Many operate from small villages in Dagestan, part of Russia that is notorious for the violence of its criminal gangs. Russian police complain that poachers are usually armed either with Kalashnikov sub-machine guns or home-made weapons.

Is there a caviare mafia? The illegal export of caviare is reckoned by the Russian press to beworth $170m to $200m a year. The actual catching of the fish is carried out without much organisation. The mafia involvement is more a function of the export business in which bribes must be paid for documentation and official stamps.

The sturgeon will not totally die out. There are still fish farms where tiny sturgeon, looking like miniature crocodiles, swim in big tubs. The Volga and the Caspian could be restocked. But this is hardly worth doing when poachers are the main beneficiaries. The only real threat to the poachers is that they may simply put themselves out of business by overfishing the few surviving sturgeon.

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