T he words chornaya ikra—"black caviar"—have recently acquired an illicit ring in the Volga River-delta town of Astrakhan, the caviar capital of Russia if not of the planet. (Three quarters of the world's caviar comes from sturgeon caught in the Volga and the Caspian Sea, into which the river drains.) When I asked for caviar during a visit to Astrakhan last fall, shopkeepers answered with incredulous stares or handed me second-rate, red salmon roe from the Russian Far East. Merchants in open-air markets responded to my request with a muttered "Nyetu" ("There is none") and then looked both ways and advised me to ask the shaven-skulled thugs in track suits loitering nearby. The thugs, members of local gangs, whispered that they were selling caviar "stolen straight from the Astrakhan fish-processing plant," but their wares turned out to be hastily processed poached caviar packed in cans pilfered from the plant. First-class chornaya ikra, I soon realized, was nowhere to be found.
The reason, I learned, has to do with poaching, an activity that, by devastating sturgeon populations, shrank Russia's legal sturgeon harvest from 10,000 tons in 1992 to 500 tons last year. (The famed giant beluga, the largest and most highly prized species of sturgeon, has all but disappeared.) As supply has decreased, caviar prices in the West have risen, prompting suppliers both legal and illegal to export most of their caviar for hard currency rather than sell it locally for rubles.
The Russian government permits sturgeon fishing only during the spring and fall. Poachers, who fish year round, collectively take in some 8,000 tons of sturgeon a year—ten times the legally allowed catch. Some poachers—generally small-timers—operate in the delta's reed- and willow-lined maze of creeks, departing from the village docks after dark in rowboats. Their haul is diminishing steadily; many of them catch only a few fish a year, but even this is enough to justify the effort. "I make nine dollars a month driving a tractor here, and they don't even pay me that on time," one poacher, who works on a collective farm during the day, told me. "I've got a family to feed, so I turn to the river. I manage to catch about five fish a year. At a hundred and eighty-five dollars' worth of caviar a fish, that means nine hundred dollars. If I didn't poach, we couldn't eat."
Once the poachers have hauled a sturgeon aboard, they kill the fish and immediately extract its roe, which they place in jars. After cleaning the fish and wrapping it in paper, they do their best to hide it—possession of a sturgeon carcass out of season is prima facie evidence of poaching. Around dawn they pull into hidden coves where local resellers gather to buy their wares. The caviar brings eighty dollars a pound, the sturgeon flesh two dollars a pound.
Although the patrol boats of the Rybokhrana (Fish-Resources Guard) may intercept poachers en route, and the beat-up Ladas of the militia may be waiting for them on shore, capture is little more than a nuisance these days. Because the Soviet government relied on caviar as a vital source of hard currency, it dealt poachers stiff jail sentences—typically twelve years. But in 1991 the Russian government, in the spirit of leniency prevailing in the early post-Soviet years, reduced sentences to two years and introduced fines—about seventy-five dollars for each poached fish. If the Rybokhrana or the militia shows up, poachers either dump their catch overboard or try to bribe the officers. This is generally an easy task: militia salaries are only sixty to a hundred dollars a month.
When the authorities encounter a poacher, they must by law take his fish and roe (and even officers who accept bribes do so). This provision practically guarantees that poaching enriches the law-enforcement agencies ostensibly working to eradicate poaching. Former poachers I spoke with described what typically happens when a militiaman intercepts a poacher: The officer releases the poacher in exchange for a bribe and then, following the law, takes the caviar to a store designated by the government as a buyer of konfiskat, or confiscated roe. The store buys the konfiskat for the equivalent of about eighteen dollars a pound—a price set by local authorities. It will later transfer the money to state coffers. The militiaman demands an additional ten dollars a pound, which he pockets. The store then calls a trader and sells him the caviar for sixty dollars a pound. When the deal is done, eighteen dollars a pound have gone to the state, ten to the militiaman, and thirty-two to the store. The market value of roe is $122 a pound in Astrakhan, so the trader makes a profit of more than 100 percent—some of which he returns to the store clerk in order to ensure continued business.