Fishing for Black Gold on the Volga River

Twenty years ago, poachers on the hunt for caviar depleted Russia's sturgeon population. One reformed fisherman reflects on the way things were, and what's changed.

By / May 2020

Andre spotted the police boat and directed Valera to swing their small craft into a thicket of reeds. His friend Valera shut off the motor. The reeds grew in dense patches around the Volga Delta. They provided surprisingly effective shelter for sturgeon poachers trying to elude arrest. Two more patrol boats arrived on the scene and began circling, searching for the law breakers.

Moving silently, Andre and Valera tied their Garmin GPS device to a clutch of reeds. They hoped that, after enduring a beating from the hands of the police, they would be able to retrieve their equipment. It was 2005. Andre was afraid. He had been beaten by the police before. The aggressive interrogation technique was used to force poachers to give up their GPS devices which contained vital evidence needed for building a criminal case. If caught, it would be Andre’s fourth conviction. He would almost certainly be headed for another stint in jail.

In the the ex-Soviet Union, the 1990s and early 2000s were an unruly decade rife with corruption, economic chaos, and criminal activity. According to Andre, many people living in the Astrakhan Region of Southern Russia began poaching sturgeon to collect its chornaya ikra, black caviar. Four-fifths of the world’s supply come from the region where the Volga River flows into the Caspian Sea.

Andre married Lena during those early, wild days of Russian capitalism and, for a time, it was difficult for them to piece together a living. One day Andre called a friend who lived in a village 60 kilometers south of Astrakhan, near the Caspian Sea, seeking information on how to poach sturgeon. What Andre learned became their main source of income for the next nine years.

The one part of poaching Andre misses is the taste of salted black caviar on buttered bread.

Poachers work in pairs called a brigada. Andre and Valera operated from one of the small islands where the Volga widens out to meet the sea. There they lived with other brigada, usually for 10-day stints, in small make-shift houses called domiki. They prepped their gear during the day and poached at night. In those early years, before Andre and Valera could afford a motor, they paddled their long, narrow, wooden boat to the places in the river where they would set their fishing rigs.

They used a rudimentary device called a nastiya. The nastiya was made with 120 naked hooks spaced 20-25 centimeters apart on a long pole. It was laid on the bottom of the river perpendicular to the current so that it would snag the giant, bottom-dwelling fish as they swam upriver on their way to spawn. Andre said the brutal but effective device was probably introduced to Russian poachers by their Chinese counterparts centuries ago. On a typical night Andre and Valera would set out five rigs.

They marked the location of their fishing rigs with a Garmin GPS device. The advantage of using GPS was that it allowed poachers to set their snares without using floatation markers which were easily spotted floating on the surface. As long as the rigs remained submerged, they were protected from being discovered by police or stolen by other poachers. Stealing another poacher’s rig was considered a major sin among the brigada. According to Magamed, another Astrakhani fisherman, it was a betrayal punishable by death. Andre called Garmin, a company based in the U.S. state of Kansas, America’s contribution to the poaching business.

After setting out their rigs, poachers waited several hours before returning to collect their catch. Once they retrieved their rigs, they returned to their domiki before sunrise to clean the fish, salt the caviar, and store their merchandise in jars. Then they would pass the jars off to bootleggers who would deliver the caviar to their customers. One of their distributors was a milkman who carried dairy products from local family farms to customers the city. They also employed boat owners with motors powerful enough to outrun the police.

A portion of the caviar was always given to the krisha, the government official responsible for catching and arresting poachers. Instead of arresting the poachers the krisha (which means roof in Russian) used his position to profit from the illegal trade. Andre and Valera gave their krisha one-third of the caviar they harvested. Every brigada had their own krisha. The end result of this system of bribery was an illegal trade that was supported and protected by a massive force of corrupt government officials.

Poachers did not sell all their caviar immediately. They usually stored a portion until winter when the prices would rise as much as 30%. Of course, they also kept a small portion for personal consumption.

The largest fish that Andre and Valera caught was in the spring of 1999. They had been on the island for nine days and their supplies were almost gone when they hooked a Beluga sturgeon. The fish weighed 150 kg (331 pounds) and carried 14 kg (31 pounds) of black caviar worth an estimated $14,000.

Reeds provided cover for poachers in the Volga River Delta.

Their catch was too valuable to entrust to the milkman or speed boat drivers. So, in the middle of the night, on their tenth day of the fishing expedition, Andre and Valera made the long, harrowing boat ride up the Volga to Astrakhan where they sold the monster fish and its caviar themselves. They traveled through fog with no lights using only the small, reed-lined tributaries to navigate their craft. They ran the motor at low throttle so as not to be heard. Their precautions were rewarded when they made it to Astrakhan and sold 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of caviar, after giving the krisha his cut.

Beluga sturgeons are the largest freshwater fish in the world. The record for the largest Beluga sturgeon ever caught is 1,571 kilograms (3,463 pounds) and 7.2 meters (23 feet 7 inches) long. It was captured in the late 1800s in an estuary of the Volga River near Astrakhan. The average beluga caught today is somewhere in the range of 19–264 kilograms (42–582 pounds). Their extraordinary size can be attributed to a long life (they can live up to 120 years) and to the fact that they grow continuously.

Sturgeon and the black gold they carry have been part of the Russian diet as far back as the 11th century. In the 16th century, those under the rule of Ivan the Terrible paid him a tribute of 3,000 sturgeon annually. In the early 20th century, as the Bolsheviks were gaining power, Russian fisherman harvested as much as 40,000 tons of sturgeon a year from the Caspian Sea and Volga River. During the Soviet Union, Russian fishermen say the rivers were teeming with the fish.

Now, Russia’s Federal Fish Agency estimates that sturgeon populations are down 90% from their peak during the Soviet Union. The main cause for this drastic decline has been attributed to poaching.

The sturgeon population in the region is rebounding slowly thanks to the investment of private companies and government organizations. Law enforcement methods have become more sophisticated and the police are now better equipped to stop the illegal fishing trade. One day the Volga River might teem with Belugas again.

On that day back in 2005, as the police boats searched for Andre and Valera in the reeds, their Garmin fell into the river and sank to the bottom of chest-deep water. The two men stripped to their underwear and made multiple dives to retrieve it. After a couple hours of hiding in the dark they silently paddled their boat to an opening and, at just the right moment, cranked their engine and sped away.

But Andre had had enough, and so had Lena. Shortly thereafter, Andre gave up poaching. Fifteen years later, he and Lena buy and sell gold for their livelihood. They say they still love fishing in the Volga but now they do it legally, for pleasure. The only part of poaching he missed, Andre said, is the taste of salted black caviar on a piece of buttered bread.

 

Corey Shepherd lives and writes in Astrakhan, Russia

 

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