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Loving caviar to death: the view from Dagestan

Vanora Bennett
17 September 2003

The wind lifts the nets drying on the beach. A caviar poacher’s rowing boat has been pulled up on the hot sand. Muscles gleam on a fisherman’s bare shoulders, and his pale, watchful eyes reflect the dance of the tides.

Umar the smuggler has brought me to this quiet place in southern Russia to show me the underworld trade between men like him and the fishermen bringing in their illegal catch: basins of gleaming black fish eggs, straight from the slashed belly of the sturgeon.

90% of the world’s surviving sturgeon live in the Caspian Sea, site of a fierce battle between fish and illegal fishermen that is slowly leading to the fish’s extinction. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, opening the way to murderous consumerism, the official sturgeon catch in the part of the Caspian once controlled by Moscow has shrunk from over 15,000 tonnes in 1990 to just 650 tonnes in 2001. Poachers (with guns, illegal trawling nets and computers to track the fish) are believed to grab thousands of invisible tonnes more.

“The truth is everyone’s at it: everyone in my town, everyone in every village up and down the coast,” Umar says light-heartedly. “Look at the statistics: 90% of caviar in the world comes from the Caspian, and 90% of Caspian caviar is poached. The conclusion: we’re all criminals. Nowadays, what else is there to make money out of except the shadow economy?”

Umar’s beach is ugly. The sea’s surface is iridescent with petrol. Old metal beach huts from Soviet days now have their feet submerged in the water – the sea level has mysteriously risen two or three metres since the 1980s. Unused nets full of barnacles lie on the sand. Rusting machines dot the scrubby grass. There is some slum housing stretching down to the water’s edge to one side, and a giant sewage pipe running the length of the sand. A concrete latticework stretches beside it, testimony to a Soviet building project whose purpose has long been forgotten.

But the fishermen who work here don’t mind the vistas of decay. They don’t want tourists. They like hanging their nets out to dry and repair on the sands, unwatched by prying eyes. They like the freedom of tying their boats up to the sewage pipe at night. They are busy getting rich, and they have no time to waste.

A poacher’s paradise

There has been no one to stop the poachers since the Soviet collapse in 1991. What had been one long Soviet coastline around most of the Caspian, policed by Soviet authorities, suddenly became four separate, chaotic, new states: Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Even Umar’s part of the Russian coastline isn’t quite Russia: it belongs to an autonomous statelet called Dagestan, a 480-kilometre long strip of coast where most of the people are Muslims and where so many different languages are spoken that it is called the Mountain of Language.

Each of these states is now supposed to fight its own crime separately. But each, engulfed by poverty, unemployment, neglect and crime, has found it easier to blame its neighbours for everything that has gone wrong with the sea. If that fails, they all get together and blame the genuinely foreign state along the Caspian’s southern shore, Iran.

This post-Soviet chaos has put the sturgeon at extreme risk. Fish that in some cases take seven or more years to mature enough to produce eggs, and a couple of decades more to reach their prime reproductive years, are now pulled out of the sea young by fishermen with no knowledge of their reproduction cycles. The number of egg-bearing females, especially the rarest form of sturgeon, beluga, has shrunk to dangerous levels. Old, careful, sturgeon-conservation policies have been largely forgotten.

Alone of the post-Soviet states, Russia maintains as many of the old Soviet rules as it can afford. But the Russian hatcheries that once artificially boosted sturgeon numbers are chronically under-funded. And the strict rules limiting the times of sturgeon fishing in river deltas, and banning sea fishing altogether, are almost entirely ignored. Other post-Soviet states have made only limited efforts to set up new sturgeon regulating frameworks. With little awareness of whatever new laws may exist, massive over-fishing became almost inevitable.

In countries where employment has become as sporadic as policing, and living standards have almost always worsened, it is hardly surprising that so many people have turned to the waters they live by for a less-than-legal living.

Umar, the happy smuggler

Umar’s village is a few streets of white-painted breezeblock topped with vines, just behind the beach. There is laughter in his eyes as he leads us back to his house. He has every reason to laugh at his bargain with fate. His job canning caviar is simple. His equipment is easily hidden from prying eyes. And his work nets him thousands of dollars every spawning season.

He has a workshop off the courtyard, with a solid metal date stamp screwed to a table. An ungainly device with more levers than a small cappuccino-maker – used to seal lids onto Russian glass caviar jars – is plugged into the wall. (There are fifteen of these machines circulating in the village, he says, covering it with a discreet dishcloth; someone will be along soon to borrow it for the afternoon).

Boxes containing hundreds of the glass jars, identical to those used for official exports and openly on sale in the local capital, Makhachkala, are piled against the walls. There are also boxes containing big silver half-kilo cans, marked Iranian caviar. Behind the courtyard, in another tiny room, Umar has stashed his only expensive piece of kit: a $10,000 sterilising machine the size of a tall fridge. He bangs its white side happily. He’s investing in himself. Things can only get better.

Once upon a time in the Soviet Union, Umar was a middle-class engineer, with a job at a big military radio factory, a small but adequate pay packet, and a law-abiding future in suburbia. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, his factory shut down, and there was no more state work and no more command economy. The present was all hyper-inflation and hunger; the only way forward that Umar could see was crime. So he became a smuggler. “Look, what choice did I have?” he says philosophically. “I had responsibilities, and kids to feed. This was all I could do. It’s not a bad life.”

From where we’re sitting, it looks idyllic. There are chickens clucking peacefully somewhere behind the kitchen, the smell of hot bread rising from the basket in front of us, a couple of women flitting to and fro with cool drinks, a dish of caviar and a big tray of watermelon, and happy children playing underfoot.

Umar’s regular clients are in Makhachkala, but he doesn’t know, or care, who they are. He doesn’t see them. Phone calls come, sporadically, right through the season, and he gets orders to can up to fifty kilograms of caviar a time.

A fifty-kilo job takes three days, and earns him $1,000. All he has to do is limp down to the beach in the mornings, buy from his neighbours the fishermen as they brought in their catch, and get to work. Once his cans are ready, he loads them up in his little minivan, tops them off artistically with some nice tomatoes, and delivers them to Makhachkala.

The worst thing he can imagine happening to him is to be stopped by a policeman who might confiscate his consignment. But even that thought makes him laugh. “You just have to keep your wits about you,” he says happily, and he rubs his fingers and thumb together, making the rustling noise of roubles changing hands, looking reminiscent.

The last time he was stopped on the road, a nosy policeman eager to investigate his boxes of vegetables poked his head into the boot and asked, “So what’s at the bottom of your van, under all that salad?” “Ah,” Umar replied smoothly, passing over a banknote with plenty of noughts. “At the very, very bottom of my van, all you’ll find is bare boards.” Chuckling, the policeman waved him on.

“The only police who might arrest you are the ones you haven’t paid off,” Umar concludes triumphantly, polishing off his caviar sandwich.

A good time in Makhachkala

Whether they are big criminals in speedboats, tracking the sturgeon with computers and illegal trawling nets, or villagers working from wooden fishing boats, Caspian poachers are all full of chuckles, self-justification, and excited stories about the thrill of the chase.

“... In the old days, fishermen only ever got killed by the sudden Caspian storms that turned the flat water we are looking at into a boiling grey nightmare, and washed bodies up on the beach every year. Now there are dangers everywhere. Fishing on the sea is illegal, and half a dozen different police forces patrol the waters, ready to arrest smugglers and clap them in jail for years, or shoot anyone who makes off towards the horizon. Or you hear mysterious gun battles out at sea – ba-BOOM! Ba-BOOM! – but never find out who is firing.”

“... The local water police don’t cause too much trouble, as long as you pay them over the odds for boat permits (but if you come across Russian border guards in a gunboat, you’re wise to tip your catch over the side smartish before they get close).”

“... In the old days, there used to be so many fish that you could stand right here, on the beach, and see them wriggling and squirming in the water. And if you threw out a line, you could catch a sturgeon without even getting up; that’s how many fish there used to be in the good old days.”

The statistics show that there are only a third as many sturgeon in the sea now as in the 1970s. These Dagestani fishermen don’t know why there are fewer fish nowadays. But they don’t think it is because they are taking too many fish from the sea. It is probably the poachers from Azerbaijan, they say, who come in big ships and steal fish from Dagestani waters, who are doing the damage. Or else it is the oil drilling off the Azerbaijani coast, which might spread so much pollution across the sea that it will kill the fish off.

Umar, who used to be an engineer before he turned to crime, prefers more scientific answers. “There’s always been smuggling here, even if there wasn’t so much before. And look how many eggs a sturgeon lays. Even if only a few survive each generation, it’s still enough,” he explains. “Anyway, we’re only little people, making our living from the sea. It’s not our fault.”

I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase “not my fault” in Dagestan. No one took responsibility for the annihilation of the sturgeon. Everyone had someone else to blame: states, organisations, or individuals. The rival police forces patrolling the waters blamed each other. The Russian border guards accused their Dagestani colleagues of negligence. The Dagestanis admitted that they’d come across smugglers among the Russian border guards.

The caviar trade is violent. When a building full of Russian border troops was blown up in 1996, killing 67 people, locals did not doubt that the attack was a warning from Dagestan’s caviar gangs. Since then scarcely a month has gone by without some violent death: a drive-by shooting, or a car bomb. Most victims are innocents, though Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, lost the use of his legs in the first of a series of annual assassination attempts against him in 1992 (Dagestani wags call him “our Roosevelt”).

Little of this appears in the local papers, so Makhachkala is full of rumours. Moscow newspapers report how the coast is overrun by gangs of poachers romantically known as “brotherhoods of the reeds.” But in Makhachkala no one believes this. They think that it is their own ministers’ trawlers harvesting as much caviar as they can carry.

Sales of caviar and sturgeon are banned all along the Russian Caspian – another way of trying to crack down on the smuggling business. But it is everyone’s pleasure to ignore the law.

“Would you like to see how you can’t buy caviar in Dagestan?” I was asked.

A whole side of the Makhachkala bazaar was given over to stalls selling sturgeon. The fish corpses, smaller than in pictures (there were so few fish now that they even caught the young, immature ones), lay on their sides, waiting mutely to be axed into saleable chunks.

We dropped in first during the morning, when a nervous policeman was hovering, ignored by the market people. “Don’t worry, he’s tame; he’s been bought,” a gold-toothed saleswoman said reassuringly, loud enough for the policeman to hear. He blushed and shuffled away. She laughed. Still, there were no cans of caviar laid out for sale, only cautious whispers from the lazily grinning men floating by .... “psst?”

But, by the time we came back, late in the afternoon, there was a party atmosphere: vodka on the traders’ breaths, recklessness in the air. Drunken men with gold teeth and dirty trousers, streaked with sticky fish blook, were standing on top of the stalls, bawling rock-bottom end-of-day prices. The policeman had faded away altogether. Now you only had to ask, and big cans of caviar would be pulled out from under the stalls. Fifty dollars was what a half-kilo cost, give or take an energetic haggle – half the Moscow price, and only a tiny fraction of what the same caviar would fetch in the West. In the great game of life with caviar, there are no rights or wrongs, just the exhilarating thrill of the chase. Everyone in the business is having too much whispery, furtive fun to worry.

An ecological disaster

Easy though it is to blame the collapse of Soviet power – and the advent of a brutal form of no-holds-barred capitalism – for the worsening ecological disaster in the Caspian Sea, the reality is that Soviet rule was no paradise either for a gentle, boneless, prehistoric fish that has been killed off across most of Europe and America by human hands.

Chief among Soviet-era abuses of the sea were pollution and tampering with the natural environment by scientists. From the early 1950s, the Soviet government had been damming the Volga and other tributaries of the Caspian Sea. They wanted reservoirs and hydroelectric plants.

When they began regulating the river’s flow, in 1958, the spawning stock of sturgeons was vast: 20,000 beluga, 400,000 sevruga and 700,000 osyotr. But the dams meant that the river’s natural spawning grounds were reduced. 85% of the spawning grounds in the lower Volga were lost, among them almost all the beluga’s spawning grounds. Spawning stopped altogether in many of the smaller rivers. The dams stopped the sturgeon swimming upstream, and so much water was removed from the rivers for industry and agriculture that some deltas were left dry except during floods.

Just as adult sturgeon could not get upstream, young fish migrating downstream could not reach the sea. The “sturgeon passages” designed by Soviet engineers to solve these problems didn’t work. By 1987, only just over 2,000 spawning sturgeon were counted heading upstream.

Industrialists liked to blame the fact that the Caspian Sea, a saltwater lake which mysteriously rises for several years at a time, before falling for several years more, was on the rise during the 1980s. Yet the years of rising sea levels had once meant bigger, healthier, more plentiful sturgeon; now the weight of belugas continued to fall, from an average 110 kg in 1970 to 57 kg in 1991.

Environmentalists blamed pollution from the oil that bubbles up along the Caspian shore, and from industrial sewage. There was more oil production now: western companies began to sniff excitedly at the Caspian from the 1980s onwards, suspecting that the oil boom of the 21st century would come from here.

Between 1980 and 1992, the copper content in the Volga increased 11.5 times, zinc 9.7 times, lead and cadmium 4.9 times. By 1989, concentrations of petroleum products in the northern Caspian exceeded the maximum amount permissible by the Soviet government by nine times. Large-scale muscle degeneration and mass starvation were observed among Caspian sturgeon in the late 1980s, caused by these toxic pollutants. All eggs collected from mature sturgeon in the Volga in 1990 were deformed.

There is just one similarity between the problems of the Communist past and those of the capitalist present, but it is an important one. Soviet officials, like today’s smugglers and oil entrepreneurs, never blamed themselves for the sturgeon’s worsening woes. Human heedlessness was almost as destructive a force then as it is now for the gentle, boneless fish.

Loving the sturgeon to death

Foreigners have no basis for righteous anger at the destruction of the sturgeon. Human heedlessness does not only characterise the behaviour of the poverty-stricken seaside villagers-turned-poachers living by the Caspian, or the mafias and bent officials of the post-Soviet space who form the next tier of caviar handlers. It is also the trademark of those who buy caviar in the wider world.

The amount of caviar that can be legally exported from the Caspian region – set by governments – is very small. Russia’s official export quota, for instance, has not gone above 60 tonnes of caviar a year for the past few years. But confusion reigns as to how much is legal at any time.

In 2001, the multinational Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – known as Cites – ordered the Caspian region’s caviar exporting nations, including Russia, Azerbijan and Turkmenistan, to reduce their exports by 80% to protect the remaining sturgeon populations.

Then in March 2002, Caspian caviar trade was allowed to resume. Cites threatened a zero quota on exports from the Caspian Sea, but delays on making the decision final meant beluga could still be shipped. So there is some justification for buyers abroad feeling unsure about what they can and cannot do.

Yet the unofficial export market is believed to be a good ten times higher than the legal one – making it hard to think that buyers in importing countries (mainly Germany, France, Belgium, the UK, Switzerland, Japan and the United States) believe the quantities available to them are legitimate. Smuggling on a small scale is carried out not only by organised groups but by individuals: anecdotal evidence ranges from students returning from study trips to Moscow selling cans of caviar to restaurants in Paris, and immigrants to New York arriving loaded down with caviar, to Russian participants at an international bridge tournament selling caviar to fellow-players at suspiciously low prices.

For those who decide not to risk smuggling, Traffic International, a body that monitors trade in at-risk animals, reports widespread mislabelling and false documentation of sturgeon products.

However much environmental groups try to limit caviar exports from producer countries, or imports to consumer countries, the reality is that sturgeon eggs have never been so sought after. Prices are high (beluga costs £1,500 a kilo in London, and even in Moscow the cost of a one-kilo can has nearly doubled in the last year to somewhere in the region of £180). Demand far outstrips supply, which is dwindling so fast that Russia may be forced to stop exporting it altogether.

From Harrods in London to Petrossian in Paris and Bloomingdales in New York, everyone is after the stuff. Restaurants like Caviar Kaspia in London, which serves both Russian and Iranian caviar, and Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire (which this summer introduced a caviar-topped salad at £635 a pop) are doing a roaring trade.

We are almost back in the cheerfully greedy mindset of a href=http://www.acanthus-books.com/ketsbookofta.html target=_blank>Kettner’s Book of the Table, written in 1877, which observed: “If it were not a pleasure, it would be an imperative duty to eat caviar. It is said that when sturgeon are in season, no less than two thirds of a female weighing perhaps 1,000 lbs consists of roe ... At such a rate of reproduction, the world would soon become the abode of sturgeons alone, were it not that the roe is exceedingly good.”

This caviar hunger is a sign of a collective change of heart. The 1990s are over, and fashion has moved on from caring and sharing. Naomi Campbell and her friends wear fur again. Heartlessness has become as hip as the environmental movement of the last two decades has been.

In today’s insecure economic climate, when wealth is again rare enough to prize, being able to afford a few badges of luxury (such as caviar) to keep the fear at bay is more reassuring than the old boomtime luxury of allowing ourselves to worry about all the creatures our hedonistic ways put at risk. Nowadays, if an animal is to be thought really worth saving, it must be an adorable mammal with big round eyes. A fish – especially a prehistoric fish with a dopy air and a cartilage snout – just doesn’t arouse the same protective instincts.

If the war on poachers is so often portrayed in the western press as a joke, it is no surprise that post-modern caviar lovers find that knowledge of the risks sharpens the pleasure of eating it. So it’s endangered, they grin, spoon poised above caviar bowl: should I not eat it on principle, or try to get as much as I can before it becomes extinct? We all know what they decide. More than pollution, more than the poachers’ illegal trawling nets, it is this knowing, winking irony creeping into consumer thinking that will probably consign the sturgeon to extinction.

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