The end of the wilderness

On Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, brown bears are starving as poachers pillage a wealth of salmon. The remote region faces ecological meltdown as fish stocks are obliterated. Luke Harding reports.

Sitting in his snug log cabin next to the swirling Bystraya river, Alexander explained when he went fishing.

"Sometimes we do in the day. Sometimes we do it at night. There’s no set time," he admitted, passing round a tub of mouth-wateringly delicious wild salmon and a chunk of brown bread.

"In the winter we dig holes in the ice and fish. We also shoot geese," he said, showing photos of himself cradling his rifle in a large snow hole, next to his floppy-eared retriever Bzhik.

Alexander is a poacher. Not a solitary amateur, but part of a professional gang, equipped with boats and a four-wheel-drive jeep. In an outbuilding, poachers in green fatigues were carefully repairing their nets. His workplace is Kamchatka, a remote volcanic peninsula on Russias Pacific coast, 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometres) and nine time zones east of Moscow.

Kamchatka is home to a quarter of the world’s salmon. Every July and August, millions of the fish struggle up its rivers and lakes to spawn. But, increasingly, most of them don’t make it.

"We catch so many fish that the different salmon species no longer return. Once we’ve exhausted one species we move on to the next," Alexander said, offering me a spoonful of orange salmon caviar and a cup of tea.

Poaching in Kamchatka is on such a large scale that, like the sturgeon, the Pacific salmon is at risk of disappearing altogether. The 750-mile (1,200-kilometre) peninsula is one of the world’s last truly great wildernesses, home to the rare Steller’s sea eagle, puffins and brown bears, who roam around its geysers and snow-covered calderas, or collapsed volcanoes. Kamchatka has more than 300 volcanoes, 29 still smoulderingly active.

As the main food source rapidly disappears, however, conservationists fear that Kamchatka is on the brink of ecological meltdown. Laura Williams, director of WWF‘s Kamchatka office, said: "When you fly over Kamchatka, you are in awe of the wilderness below you. There are no roads and no settlements. I think right now the threats are relatively localised — with the exception of salmon, which is very widely over-fished."

In Soviet times, the Kamchatka peninsula was a strategic military base, off-limits to foreigners. Poaching was severely punished. But with the collapse of communism, and Russia’s transition to a market economy, the law has ceased to exist. Instead, poachers pay off the officials tasked with protecting the fish. Asked whether politicians, the police or ordinary Russians were involved in this trade, Valery Vorobyev, the director of one of Kamchatka’s largest fishing firms, Akros, said: "Everybody."

The result of this ubiquitous criminal enterprise, according to Mr Vorobyev, is that the region’s once-abundant marine life is vanishing. Out in the Sea of Okhotsk, a slate-grey expanse of frozen water that stretches from Kamchatka’s western coast to the gulag town of Magadan, the crabs have all but gone.

"In 1992 we caught 35,000 tonnes of king crab. Last year it was 3,400 tonnes. We need to stop fishing crab now if the species is to survive," Mr Vorobyev said. A further threat to the salmon came from the recent discovery of oil on the peninsula’s western shelf.

In the Bering Sea, on the east coast near the foggy town of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, illegal Japanese trawlers have cleaned out the pollack.

Kamchatka has about 12,000 salmon-eating bears — the largest population in Eurasia. But they, too, are in trouble. In April and May, American hunters using helicopters and snowmobiles shot 300 bears — a perfectly legal pursuit costing $10,000 (£5,000) per dead bear. Illegal hunting accounted for another 600.

Local guides say the hunters eat the bears grilled paws and tongue while discussing the Iraq war and drinking vodka. They leave the rest.

Hungry bears are now encroaching on towns, rummaging in bins and scoffing the remains discarded by fish factories.

Kamchatka has also been hit by geological misfortune. On June 3, 2007, a giant mudslide engulfed the Valley of the Geysers, a lush area of hot springs and water spouts, and one of Russia’s most famous tourist attractions. Nobody was hurt. But most of the geysers have now disappeared under a large, soup-like lake. Geologists are insouciant, calling it a natural phenomenon. But the mudslide is a blow to Kamchatka’s small tourist industry, which relies on well-heeled and adventurous Germans who splash out on costly helicopter flights.

Kamchatka‘s local administration has failed to get to grips with the endemic poaching. Although it has established a poaching committee, officials admit they are powerless to stop illegal fishing.

"That’s an interesting question," said Alexander Krengel, head of the fishing department, when asked to put a figure on how many salmon gets stolen. The poaching was a "consequence" of Kamchatka’s depressed economic state, he said, adding: "We need to eliminate the reason for it."

Observers believe more than 100,000 tonnes of salmon a year are illegally fished. They are mostly taken for their caviar, which sells for 1,000 roubles (£20, or $40) a kilo (2.2 pounds). The fish are thrown away. The problem is made worse by the region’s stunning remoteness — a nine-hour plane journey from Moscow, the world’s longest domestic flight.

The Kremlin said developing Russia’s sparsely populated far east is a priority, given the economic success of neighbouring China. But Vladimir Putin visits Kamchatka rarely. On his last trip, the Russian president skied down a volcano, the 2,741-metre-high (9,000 feet) Mount Avachinskaya.

The poachers admit that the salmon could have disappeared completely in a few years, but they claim they have no choice. "There are no jobs here. There is nothing," said Alexander, who declined to give his second name. "Look at how Moscow lives. Look at how we live."

Another poacher, Igor, added indignantly: "Moscow is in no position to give us lectures about fishing quotas."

Ust-Bolsheretsk is certainly grim, despite its wonderful setting. Most of its 2,500 residents live in Soviet-era tower blocks. The Sea of Okhotsk is a short drive away through a green and watery landscape that smells of rotting fish.

On the coast, other poachers are busy emptying crates of fish under a grey sky. Nearby is a rusting Soviet tank. Environmentalists say the locals are poaching nerka — one of 11 species.

Alexander is sanguine about the bears and the fish. There are plenty left, he said. "You see bears here all the time. There are three or four bears 40 minutes from here. As for the salmon, let’s see."

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

Homepage photo by Robnunn