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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Illegal fishing empties Russian sea
Dalnevostochnik, Russia - A plastic bottle bobbing on the surface of Amurskiy Bay, concealed under a plastic bag, is a tell-tale sign that poachers are working this salmon spawning route in the coastal waters of the Russian Far East.
Around noon on a late July day Sergei Zavodskov, a deputy inspector of fisheries, tugged at the bottle, attached to an anchor, and hauled into his patrol boat a 100-meter-long net strung across the inlet.
Camping nearby was the poacher who laid it - Andrei Stepashin, a fellow fisheries inspector from another federal agency.
In the spawning season, from May through October, Russian waters contain half the worlds remaining wild Pacific salmon.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people in Primorskiy, a vast region that stretches north from Vladivostok, worked for government fishing collectives or hunted and trapped fur-bearing animals.
But after 1989, the collectives were shut and the fishing fleets were privatized. Today, the regions most powerful commercial fishing fleet, based in Vladivostok, employs only a fraction of its former workforce. Soviet-era fish processing equipment, too old to be repaired, rusts in the fields and the processing has been relocated to China.
Unemployment has soared in the fishing villages that dot the region. In Dalnevostochnik, about an hour by car around Amurskiy Bay from Vladivostok, barely 15 percent of the residents now work for a private fishing fleet that took over some of the assets of the former Soviet collective.
Another 15 percent work in Vladivostok, and the remaining 70 percent are jobless, Zavodskov says.
"There is no commercial fishing potential left anymore in Primorskiy," said David Gordon, executive director of Pacific Environment, a conservation organization in San Francisco.
People are so poor they must poach to make ends meet - including the inspectors, like Stepashin.
A federal inspectors monthly salary averages 8,000 rubles, or $300, and penalties are light. Stepashin was fined 1,000 rubles on the spot, but risked no prosecution that might have put his job on the line.
The inspection agencies are underfunded and reshuffled constantly. Responsibilities overlap and corruption is rampant.
Zavodskov works for a fisheries inspectorate that was created just over a year ago as part of the veterinary and plant health agency, Rosselkhoznadzor. For the first few months the agency had no money for fuel or maintenance. For most of the year he had no office, so he conducted business from his car. Lacking money for a base camp, he created his own by lashing together two old Soviet military trucks.
And it is not only local villagers he has to keep away from the fishing grounds. Chinese and North Koreans, many of them illegal immigrants, are also poaching to survive.
Estimates by WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, put the trade in illegally caught fish at $5 billion annually. Pavel Fomenko, a WWF specialist in illegal trade, said that salmon poaching was widespread along the entire 1,000-kilometer, or 600-mile, Russian coastline on the Sea of Japan.
Environmentalists say a bucket of salmon roe will pay for a new house or a car in China.
Chinese poachers not only take the fish, but they also are engaging in environmentally damaging practices, Fomenko said. They poke electric rods powered by portable generators into the rivers, paralyzing and killing fish. The fish that survive electrocution are rendered sterile, reducing future fish populations.
Many Chinese slip across the 7,000- kilometer heavily wooded and mountainous border with Russia. Others arrive with two-week tourist visas and stay on illegally for months, hiding in forests.
High margins on illegal trafficking that are roughly on par with drug smuggling have drawn in Russian organized crime, Fomenko said. Russian mobs and Chinese immigrants work together, offering protection to the Chinese traffickers, he said. Some organized crime groups reinvest drug profits in boats and fishing equipment for poachers, said Sergei Lyapustin, a former head of customs for the Russian Far East.
Illegal poaching has gone on for so long in Primorskiy that it has become integrated into the legal system, making it harder to detect and eradicate, said Alexei Weisman, a senior program officer in the Moscow office of Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network affiliated with the WWF.
Despite the collapse of commercial fishing, wild salmon catches in the Russian Far East may be as much as 400 percent over quota, and the legal government quotas themselves are set by an opaque process that lends itself to corruption, Weisman said.
Poaching and pollution are not the only threats to the fish population. Illegal logging, right up to the shoreline, is rampant, Fomenko said.
Clear-cutting at the shoreline allows rain and melting snow to dump sand and sediment into the waters, fouling habitats. Logging trucks, using the shallow waters as roads, destroy spawning grounds for fish, he said.
The rivers of Primorskiy, once among the most pristine habitats anywhere in the world, used to be abundant with salmon and other fish. No more.
As salmon vanish from local lakes and streams, the regions fresh water ecosystems are deprived of vital nutrients, carried by salmon in their migration from sea to river. Their diminishing numbers put at risk about 140 local species that rely directly on salmon for nutrients and protein, according to the Wild Salmon Center, a northern Pacific conservation body.
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Impacts/Environment, biodiversity and fish stocks
Issues/Monitoring, control and surveillance
East Asia/South Korea
Eastern Europe and North Asia/Russian Federation