As glum Russian fishermen haul in their net from the Volga river, just two small sturgeon are splashing about among the daily catch. "In the old days, we would catch sturgeon each weighing 132lb," sighed Pavel Syzranov, the head of the once thriving Lenin fishery in southern Russia. "Now there are no sturgeon left of that size." Nor are there many of any size. Caviar poaching is all but eliminating the species, once a source of national pride.
The relentless hunt for the so-called "Tsar fish" and its precious eggs has acquired such huge proportions in post-Soviet Russia that the prehistoric creature, which outlived the dinosaurs, is being pushed to the edge of extinction.
Russia's wild capitalism and murky reforms of the 1990s dealt a severe blow to fisheries such as the one in Zelenga, a tiny, once-flourishing town in the Volga delta, where sturgeon come to spawn after maturing in the Caspian Sea. Two hours by boat from the regional capital Astrakhan, its dusty streets dotted mainly with decrepit wood huts look almost deserted.
Poverty and rampant unemployment push many people to try their luck at poaching. Some of their fellow villagers still cannot believe it has taken the sturgeon so little time to disappear. "This place was once teeming with fish. There were fisheries virtually everywhere," said Alexander Kuznetsov, 76, pointing to the river. "You wouldn't be able to walk (in the water) – the fish would knock you down ... Where has it all gone now? I don't know."
In an effort to stem poaching, Russia banned black caviar exports in 2002, when it declared the situation critical, and allows just nine tons of the delicacy to be sold on the home market each year. But a vast decline in sturgeon stocks has already hit the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland body of water and the source of four-fifths of the world's black caviar. During the Soviet era, experts estimated the annual sturgeon catch at 20,000 tons and caviar output at 2,000 tons. According to the Federal Fishery Agency, poaching has reduced the sturgeon population by 90 per cent since 1970. Stocks are down about 40 per cent since 2000.
The Russian tsars created a monopoly for the sale of caviar, and ordinary people paid no less homage to the noble fish. Before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, churches and monasteries on the Volga were not allowed to ring their bells when giant sturgeon came upriver from the Caspian, for fear of disturbing their spawning. In Soviet times, the authorities kept tight controls over the business. But as a rule, a Soviet worker kept a tin of the cherished roe in a fridge for the New Year holiday or VE Day celebrations. Though affordable, the delicacy was often in short supply.
Today, criminals bring black caviar to wealthy capitals around the world. In Moscow, prices for beluga – considered to be the finest caviar – reach $2,000 or more per kilo. Andrei Vodopyanov, head of the Astrakhan regional fishing control authority, is charged with fighting the grass roots of the illegal business – local poachers. But he also understands what pushes many to break the law. "Bad ecology and dwindling (fishing) quotas mean that people just ditch their jobs, being unable to earn a living by legal means. To feed their families, they are often forced to take to poaching instead," he said.
His team of "river police" faces an uphill task, often setting free suspected poachers who throw into the water their fishing nets and catch, usually the only available evidence.
"I know the law. I know court cases," one such suspect said defiantly, having been fined only for lacking a proper licence for his motorboat. "But what would they bring me to court for? For going to the river to find food for my child? Should I go to prison for that? Give me a job. The whole village is without work. There is no single enterprise working."
Meanwhile, Mr Vodopyanov's men dragged out a rope with dangling razor-sharp hooks placed across one of the channels where the sturgeon come for spawning. Even a minor scratch means imminent death for a sturgeon after its exhausting migration.
In 2000, Russia banned commercial catching of beluga, a predator known for its longevity and size: the largest of the sturgeon, it reaches more than 16 ft long and weighs up to a ton. In 2005, Moscow slapped a ban on commercial catching of the Russian sturgeon – the most populous variety in the Caspian basin – and stellate sturgeon.But scientists say this is not enough and call for joint action by all five Caspian states, which also include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
Raisa Khodorevskaya, a leading specialist in sturgeon and a department chief at the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute, said it didn't make sense for Russia to abstain from commercial fishing while some other littoral states continued catching. Catching at sea must be banned, she argued, because in this case fishermen and poachers alike catch sturgeon that often do not reach maturity for spawning. Depending on the variety and gender of sturgeon, it may take them up to 18 years to mature.
A few decades ago, shops in Volga cities were packed with tins of affordable black caviar and giant chunks of sturgeon. By bitter irony, today's Astrakhan hosts a unique sturgeon museum – a grim hint that it may become a mere exhibit one day. Ms Khodorevskaya, whose institute releases millions of young sturgeons into the wild each year, said Russia was probably 10 years late to start fighting for the noble fish. "The sturgeon is Russia's national pride," she said. "We are a bit late ... (but) I believe you can preserve this fish – if you have proper controls, protection and reproduction. Russians say: 'The worth of a thing is best known by the want of it.' We should have treasured what we possessed once."