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One Man's Opinion: Russia’s poaching party could be over

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
November 01, 2007

Doing business in Russia's Far East is not for the meek. A few years ago, the governor of Magadan, one of Russia's eastern provinces rich in fisheries resources, was shot dead on a Moscow street as he chatted on his cell phone. Governor Tsvetkov, nicknamed "The Bulldozer," was reportedly whacked over a business deal gone sour.

Rampant corruption in Russia's seafood sector is not breaking news. After the collapse of communism, fish quotas were put up for bid. The winners bid outrageously high prices in order to get out on the water. Then, once they were on the water, they could pay off the appropriate authorities and catch a lot more fish than their quota allowed for.

Some of the worst cases of illegal fishing have been in the fisheries off Russia's Pacific Coast. According to The Krai, an online magazine based in Russia's Far East, the 2005 king crab quota in Russia's Pacific waters was just 500 metric tons, while actual landings were 25,000 metric tons. In the case of snow crab, the magazine said, the quota that year was 15,000 metric tons, however, 39,000 metric tons were exported to Japan. With so much blatant overfishing, it's surprising that Russian poachers can still make a living off crab.

What's been good for the poachers has been good for their customers, too. A slew of processors on Hokkaido, Japan's second-largest island, have built their business on a steady diet of deliveries of illegal live Russian crab. American buyers have gobbled up Russian crab, too. A glut of medium-size king crab from Russia's Far East last year drove the holiday wholesale price down to $5.50 per pound and retailers happily jumped on the opportunity to promote the bargain.

Alas, there are signs that Russia's poaching party may finally be coming to an end. This September, Moscow police arrested Arkady Gontmakher, owner of Global Fishing, a Seattle company that is thought to be the largest single U.S. importer of Russian king crab (see Newsline, p. 12). According to Russian authorities, Gontmakher allegedly exported about 15,000 metric tons of illegal king crab worth an estimated $200 million.

Russia's Border Guard has also been cracking down in an operation dubbed "Crab 2007." The combination of the arrests in Moscow and the newly invigorated enforcement efforts at sea have dried up landings of Russian king crab as poachers have been afraid to leave the dock.

It's also clear that Moscow wants to regain control of the natural resources that it previously had ceded to the provinces. This summer President Putin reasserted federal power over fisheries by bringing back the Soviet-era State Fisheries Committee and giving it responsibility for fisheries management.

While Russia has long talked about stopping the plundering of its fisheries, this time the crackdown appears serious. In the short term, that's bad news for companies that have been making money off of illegally caught Russian fish and shellfish. Over the long term, however, it's good news. Russia has vast fisheries resources that, if well managed, can produce prodigious quantities of seafood on a sustainable basis. And that would be good news for everyone.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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