Poaching in Far Eastern Russia Threatens Ecosystem

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Map of Kamchatka i

The isolated peninsula of Kamchatka is located in Russia's Far Eastern region. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Kamchatka

The isolated peninsula of Kamchatka is located in Russia's Far Eastern region.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
A geyser in Kamchatka i

Kamchatka is home to hot, spurting geysers and 29 active volcanoes. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
A geyser in Kamchatka

Kamchatka is home to hot, spurting geysers and 29 active volcanoes.

AFP/Getty Images
Fishermen on Kamchatka's western shore i

Fishermen set to work at the Sea of Okhotsk on Kamchatka's Western shore. One fisherman says if they did not poach fish, they would go hungry. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer, NPR
Fishermen on Kamchatka's western shore

Fishermen set to work at the Sea of Okhotsk on Kamchatka's Western shore. One fisherman says if they did not poach fish, they would go hungry.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
A rusting ship in the port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky i

The port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Pacific side of the peninsula is filled with rusting ships and scrap metal. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer, NPR
A rusting ship in the port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

The port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Pacific side of the peninsula is filled with rusting ships and scrap metal.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
A fish market in the town of Yelizovo i

A woman sells fish at a market in Yelizovo, near the capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Vendors say 90 percent of the fish they sell is poached. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer, NPR
A fish market in the town of Yelizovo

A woman sells fish at a market in Yelizovo, near the capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Vendors say 90 percent of the fish they sell is poached.

Gregory Feifer, NPR

Russia's untamed, Far Eastern peninsula of Kamchatka is one of the last great spawning grounds of Pacific wild salmon.

But grinding poverty and corruption are feeding a culture of poaching that's endangering not only some salmon species, but also the region's entire ecosystem.

No Place on Earth like Kamchatka

Kamchatka is a spectacular land of active volcanoes and hot, spurting geysers. Rare Steller's sea eagles and the world's densest population of brown bears live in stunning landscapes of snow-peaked mountains and rivers.

To the east of this isolated peninsula lies the Sea of Okhotsk.

On the coast, murky waves lap the dark, volcanic sand of this barren beach, as warmly dressed fishermen in rubber boats cast nets into the water.

They're catching halibut, but under the piles of halibut, you can glimpse something out of season and illegal to catch: wild sockeye salmon.

A Culture of Poaching

Several miles inland up the slow-flowing Bystraya River, past flat tundra that stinks from piles of rotting fishheads, lies the crumbling village of Ust-Bolsheretsk. Here fishermen eat salted salmon and drink tea in trailers by the riverbank.

Igor, who won't give his last name, says everyone on Kamchatka poaches fish.

"There's no work here," he says. "Only fish. Everyone feeds his family however he can, and that's by catching fish. If you don't do it, you go hungry."

Every year, millions of salmon fight their way up the Bolsheretsk and other rivers. When poachers deplete one species, they move on to another.

Kamchatka's rich natural beauty starkly contrasts with its human poverty. On the eastern, Pacific coast, the decrepit capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky appears to have been forgotten by time. Crumbling, Soviet concrete-slab buildings line the lush hills dropping down to the water. The once-bustling port is now mostly idle and crammed with rusting ships and scrap metal. Around 20 fishing trawlers are moored out at sea, impounded for poaching.

Regional officials say only 10 percent of the fish caught in and around Kamchatka is poached, and fishing department chief Alexander Krengel says the administration is tackling the problem.

"This year, we've set up a headquarters to coordinate a crackdown on poaching by various law-enforcement agencies," Krengel says. "It's enabled us to stabilize the situation."

Most Kamchatkans dispute the government's figures. Valery Vorobiev is the head of Akros, one of Kamchatka's largest fishing companies. He says criminal gangs poach at least half the fish sold from Kamchatka.

"Poaching is ruinous for salmon," he says. "In Kamchatka alone, more than 100,000 tons of salmon are poached a year. And much of it is used only for caviar. The fish are slashed open and thrown away."

Vorobiev says some salmon species have declined by half in recent years. Inland, criminal groups organize brigades of 15 to 20 men who are flown upriver by helicopter to poach. They're depriving Kamchatka's bears of their natural prey, forcing them to wander near human settlements to look for food.

A Corrupt Bureaucracy

Environmental activist Andrei Abikh says Kamchatka's industrial-scale poaching is only possible because of serious corruption among officials whose job it is to protect fish.

"It's a racket that goes all the way to the top. Everyone wants a cut of the profits. It's gotten to the point where police, secret service, even judges are involved in poaching salmon from our rivers," Abikh says.

In the town of Elizovo near the capital, fish vendor Vadim Chernov says 90 percent of salmon sold at the market is poached.

"The industry could easily be legalized, it's just that that would eat into the authorities' profits from bribes and fines," Chernov says. "Most of our fish goes abroad, so locals are forced to poach, and we have no choice but to buy fish from them. That's just not right."

Locals say as long as Kamchatka is run by a corrupt bureaucracy, the region's unique natural resources will continue to be plundered. Environmental experts say that could lead to collapse not only for Kamchatka's ecosystem, but also the Pacific's entire wild salmon population.

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