Cablegate: Roe Woes: Russian Caviar On the Ropes

DE RUEHMO #3348/01 1901343
R 091343Z JUL 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) 06 MOSCOW 11310
B) 05 MOSCOW 8539

MOSCOW 00003348 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. A two-year moratorium on Russian sturgeon
fishing in the Caspian Sea has slowed, but not stopped, the thriving
black market in Beluga caviar. World Wildlife Federation's Moscow
Director contends that "not one egg" of black caviar sold in Moscow
is legal: that is, from farm-raised fish or the byproduct of
scientific catches. WWF predicts that all sturgeon stocks in the
Caspian will be wiped out in 15 years. Astrakhan Oblast officials
admit that over-fishing has brought about a collapse of supply, but
they argue that the illegal trafficking is finally being curbed and
that extensive restocking efforts hold great promise -- albeit a
prospect measured in decades. END SUMMARY.

2. (U) Walk into almost any "produkti" (grocery) store or
supermarket in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and you can find Beluga
caviar for sale. Containers of 27 grams are priced at about 7,000
rubles (roughly $280). Most restaurants here also routinely include
Beluga caviar as a menu item, albeit a pricey one. This ready
availability contrasts with a moratorium, in place since 2005, on
commercial fishing quotas in Astrakhan Olbast, which includes the
delta of the Volga River as it flows into the Caspian Sea. For
decades, Astrakhan provided the bulk of Russia's sturgeon and
sturgeon caviar. But that era of plenty is long over.

Illegal Cornucopia

3. (SBU) World Wildlife Fund's Moscow Director Igor Chestin told
EST recently that, despite the seeming abundance of Beluga in
Moscow, "not one egg" of it is legal. Any legal production of
Beluga is being exported, he contended, because the price it can
collect overseas is significantly higher than Moscow norms.
According to current regulations, only caviar which is the byproduct
of scientific catches or which has been farm-raised can be legally
sold. Until recently, caviar which has been confiscated from
poachers could also be sold -- but that loophole has tightened
considerably. Astrakhan oblast officials have insisted that
confiscated caviar be destroyed, because of contamination concerns.

4. (SBU) Wild sturgeon caviar from the Caspian Sea was also
subjected to a 12-month ban by the Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The general
prohibition was lifted in January 2007, with a small quota for
beluga announced in May, but its implementation remains
controversial. Critics argued that, paradoxically, the ban simply
bolstered the black market trade in Beluga because it caused prices
to shoot upward. Chestin agreed, noting that enforcement of the
fishing moratorium was already weak but became even weaker when
poachers became more determined. Chestin was cynical about the
prospects of changing the situation. Astrakhan and its Caspian
neighbors such as the Republic of Dagestan are severely economically
depressed, he said. Their residents have few alternatives to
sturgeon poaching. Chestin predicted that the entire stock of
Caspian sturgeon would be wiped out within 15 years.

5. (U) Astrakhan officials seem to recognize that the situation is
serious. In a May 10 press interview, Governor Zhilkin contended
that a concept of "total struggle against poaching" has been adopted
at the federal level, on instructions from President Putin. Zhilkin
said that a new law on intensifying the fight against poaching
should help. Zhilkin contended that only Aeroflot is purchasing
caviar through official channels. In all other places such as
stores and restaurants, he noted cryptically, "I do not know the
source of supply." Zhilkin said that the oblast has shifted its
focus to sturgeon reproduction, and that it hopes to restore the
entire sturgeon stock in the Russian part of the Caspian Sea within
10 years.

View from Astrakhan

6. (SBU) EST recently visited Astrakhan, and met with officials
from the Caspian Scientific Research Institute for Fisheries and
Oceanography, including Institute Director Gennadiy Sudakov. Sergey
Shiyan, head of the Federal Service for Northern Caspian Fisheries,
was also present. Sudakov claimed that Russia provides the majority
of sturgeon stock in the Caspian, and emphasized the importance of
the ten reproduction centers -- hatcheries and breeding farms -- now

MOSCOW 00003348 002.2 OF 003

actively operating on the Volga River, including a large one built
into a dam in Volgograd. He said the government plans to build a
new one on the shore of the Caspian Sea. These reproduction
centers, first established in the 1950's, were originally intended
to counter the effects of hydroelectric dams and transportation
canals on the Volga, he said.

7. (SBU) Sudakov conceded that over-fishing of sturgeon has brought
about a collapse of supply. He claimed that the ban on commercial
fishing of sturgeon was a voluntary agreement between industry,
scientists and government authorities to address the situation. He
noted that the problem is compounded by the life cycle of sturgeon,
which take 18-24 years to mature. This means that any attempt to
restock the Caspian would require two decades. Still, he was
optimistic, contending that the current population has a healthy
population of young fish, and that this would lead to an eventual
recovery. "We work for the future," Shiyan asserted in agreement.

8. (U) Artificial restocking attempts are expensive and have had
mixed results so far. The oblast last year released 55 million very
young sturgeon into the sea, but they were quickly eaten by
predators. Older sturgeon, between one and five kilograms, should
be hardier -- not least because they already have spines. As an
experiment, Sudakov said his institute will release 1,000 of these
fish to see if they are able to survive. They will track them with
radio implants and tags. Half the fish will be released in the
river, the other half in the sea to provide a comparison of the
results. However, some scientists argue that these older
farm-raised fish may not be able to catch the larger amounts of
natural food needed to survive.

9. (U) Sudakov showed EST a documentary film featuring some of the
institute's specialized equipment and techniques. He was
particularly proud of methods to remove caviar without killing the
mother fish. These included a "drill hole and milk" technique, and
a "surgical cut and stitch."

Breeding Sturgeon

10. (U) Shiyan escorted us to the Lebyazhye Fish Reproduction
Enterprise, billed by its director, Lyudmilla Popova, as the largest
sturgeon breeding facility in the world. The facility has 145
full-time employees and a steady supply of students from Astrakhan
State University, as well as exchange students from overseas. (NOTE:
Popova said American students would be welcome. END NOTE) We
watched lab workers inject a half dozen large-sized male fish with
hormones in preparation for breeding. We also saw tanks where older
fish (more than five years) are being raised to be used, eventually,
for breed stock (as opposed to capturing from the wild). We toured
the field where the 30 summer ponds are located.

11. (SBU) Along the way, Popova gave us a sturgeon tutorial. She
said the facility has 220 females which are kept there. Males are
captured in the wild, although they hope in future to have a male
stock in the hatchery. She noted that it is difficult to determine
the sex of sturgeon when they are young. Security is tight (guards,
fences, locked buildings) at the section of the facility where the
valuable adult fish are kept. Security is deemed unnecessary at the
summer ponds. In these ponds, some 150,000 fry are put in each one.
The results are considered worthwhile if they have 100-120 fish at
the end of the summer. Birds are not a problem, and no covering
nets are needed, Popova said, because sturgeon are bottom feeders.

12. (SBU) During a break over tea, Shiyan expounded on the topic.
He said some sturgeon species do well in captivity (Beluga,
Ossetra); some do not (Sevruga). He expressed interest in U.S.
scientific exchanges in this sphere of research. Shiyan suggested
that all illegal caviar for sale in Moscow is from the Far East, but
contended that Russian authorities have finally put a stop to most
of the trafficking. He asserted that the situation in Astrakhan has
been brought under control. (NOTE: Indeed, there was almost no
caviar for sale in the city. The official stores that had been open
two years ago (REF B) were closed. An upscale supermarket had a
half dozen very small jars priced at close to 3,000 rubles (about
$120). The fish market had a limited number of tins of black caviar
mixed with other types of roe. We bought several small jars at 270
rubles (less than $12) each, and we were given what they assured us
was legal documentation. At the airport, however, security guards
told us the fish market was not authorized to sell caviar. Still,

MOSCOW 00003348 003.2 OF 003

they let us keep our purchase. END NOTE)

13. (SBU) At the Fisheries Agency in Moscow, we pressed Aleksandr
Okhanov, head of the Aquatic Bioresources and Fisheries Management
Department, on the sources of caviar being sold in Moscow. He
claimed he could not say, then suggested, winking, that we should
ask the Interior Ministry -- the clear implication being that much
of it is illegal. Okhanov reiterated that the Russian Government
forbids all commercial sturgeon fishing and that the only permitted
catches are for scientific research and for reproduction efforts.
He contended that Russia follows sound scientific principles and
adheres to all international conservation standards. He noted that
CITES had lifted the ban because the five-nation Caspian Sea
Commission had reached agreement on reducing catches and monitoring
stocks. Turkmenistan is a member of the commission but not of
CITES, he said, therefore Russia shares its quota with them. As an
aside, Okhanov commented that, within the Commission, Iran has been


14. (SBU) Given the severe depletion of sturgeon stocks -- by most
estimates, a devastating 90 percent drop in annual catches from 1995
to 2005, when the moratorium was imposed -- Russian authorities have
much ground to recover. They also face a daunting challenge in
curtailing the black market. Still, Astrakhan authorities appear
resolute in this struggle, and are convinced they have the central
government's support to eliminate poaching. With proper law
enforcement, the focus will shift to sturgeon reproduction efforts.
The measure of those efforts is necessarily long-term, but Russia's
strong scientific tradition should tilt the odds in favor of


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