MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We're going to stay in Russia for the last story in our series on the Volga River. Today, we go to Astrakhan, it's the southernmost city on the Volga located on the edge of a delta reaching into the Caspian Sea. It's the spawning ground for the highly-prized Caspian sturgeon, which produces four-fifths of the world's black caviar.
Astrakhan was once Russia's caviar capital, but no more. As the fish neared extinction, Russia banned all commercial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Basin.
As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, the story of Astrakhan is now one of survival -both for the sturgeon and for the people who once depended on it.
ANNE GARRELS: It wasn't so long ago when Astrakhan's fish market glistened with heaps of affordable fresh caviar - the sturgeon's gooey black eggs, often called Black Gold. Now the only caviar legally available is from the government-regulated fish farms. There aren't a lot of them and they don't come near to meeting world demand - even at a whopping 1,000 to $2,000 a kilo.
The economic decline is reflected in the crumbling one-story wooden buildings which still make up much of the Astrakhan's city center.
Gennady Rozenberg, with the Russian Academy of Sciences, says the government needs to do more now to encourage sturgeon farming. He says these farms can help restore stocks, produce more caviar, cut down on the black market and boost the faltering local economy.
Professor GENNADY ROZENBERG (Biologist, Russian Academy of Sciences): (Through Translator) Perhaps it's not yet clear to Moscow that natural resources like sturgeon are no less valuable than oil, gas and coal, on which Russia currently lives. I think our government simply doesn't understand this can be a significant source of income.
GARRELS: Devotees of caviar date back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Russian czars had a monopoly on its sale. Before the 1917 revolution, churches on the Volga were not allowed to ring their bells as the giant fish came upriver, for fear of disturbing their spawning. But their numbers suddenly showed a dramatic decline in the late '90s. There are various views on what led to this and what their future may be now.
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GARRELS: Joseph Stalin destroyed spawning grounds with the construction of a series of hydroelectric stations along the Volga. Some experts believe that's the key to the near disappearance of these strange-looking prehistoric fish, which had managed to outlast the dinosaurs.
Victor Chlpinov, with the Academy of Sciences here in Astrakhan, says others believe overfishing is at the heart of the problem.
Professor VICTOR CHLPINOV (Russian Academy of Sciences): (Through Translator) In Soviet times, official fishing was big, but illegal fishing was nine or 10 times that, even then. And after the Soviet Union fell apart and all controls evaporated, poaching just exploded.
GARRELS: Whatever the reason, the result is fewer and fewer fish.
Scientists are allocated small quotas of sturgeon to breed and release into the wild. Professor Alexander Kokoza, at Astrakhan's Technical University, says it will take years to see how successful this is.
Professor ALEXANDER KOKOZA (Astrakhan State Technical University): (Through Translator) These fish don't reach maturity for eight to 18 years. And though a female releases 250 to 400,000 eggs at a time, only two to three fish survive from this incredible amount.
GARRELS: The Russian government also recently introduced a number of measures to curb poaching. Vladimir Karpenko is with Astrakhan's fishing control agency.
Mr. VLADIMIR KARPENKO (Regional Fishing Control Authority, Astrakhan): (Through Translator) There is now a strict system of inspections. We have small motor boats, cars, and we have drones, though we still have to learn how to work with them.
GARRELS: He insists poaching is way down. Some reports, however, suggest poachers continue to send Moscow 250 metric tons a year in illegal caviar. A senior official in Karpenko's office is currently under investigation for sturgeon poaching, something he refused to discuss.
Local taxi drivers say they can find black caviar, but put to the test, it was actually hard to come by; either because it's moved on to richer Moscow where prices are higher, or because controls are now taking effect.
And there aren't just controls on sturgeon. Quotas on other fish have now been imposed to reverse the decline of the chaotic '90s.
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GARRELS: As fish police head out into the Volga, their boat passes the shells of former factories, among them many fish-processing plants now out of business.
Mr. VASILY SUZRANOV (Fisherman): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Fisherman Vasily Suzranov says controls are working. The ban on commercial sturgeon fishing has reduced his salary dramatically. He now makes about $500 a month. That's a good salary in these parts, but nothing what he once earned. But at least his collective still has the right to catch other fish.
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GARRELS: Not so in other villages in the Volga Delta, where farmers have lost all fishing rights. In Zelenga, the fish collective is the last local industry to shut down.
Nina Saraikina, with the local government, is in despair.
Ms. NINA SARAIKINA (Zelenga Government): (Through Translator) The collective here didn't win a quota for any commercial fishing, let alone sturgeon. There are no jobs left here.
GARRELS: Zelenga may join the list of thousands of Russian villages which have disappeared from the map. The deserted dirt roads are lined with ramshackle wooden houses, their siding scavenged from fish crates, testimony to another era. Decay is setting in.
Exotic lotuses bloom in the river. Pelicans, flamingos, herons and many other migratory species make this a birders' paradise. But tourism is in its infancy.
For now, local officials concede poaching is the only way for some to put food on the table despite the risks.
Again, Victor Chlpinov.
Prof. CHLPINOV: (Through Translator) It's hard to catch sturgeon these days, but there are people who by chance get a fish. And it's hard to refuse a pot of gold. Someone who earns nothing or maybe $120 a month suddenly realizes he can get $10,000 in a day.
GARRELS: Chlpinov says if sturgeon and people are to thrive along the Volga, the region needs investment and jobs.
Anne Garrels, NPR News.
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