Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky/Moscow, 5 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The annual salmon run on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East brings millions of salmon back to their spawning grounds after three or four years at sea. This year, the salmon run is particularly good, "in fact, the best in the last 40 years," say officials at Kamchatka's fish resources department.
As Russia's financial and political crisis deepens, it appears clear that fish and vegetables, mainly potatoes, from private plots will be the main sources of food for most of the 400,000 people living on the peninsula, which is located 11,000 km east of Moscow.
Kamchatka, as other Russian regions, imports a large amount of foodstuffs from foreign countries, says Aleksandr Potievsky, head of foreign economic relations at the regional administration. Until August, when Russia effectively defaulted on its debt and devalued the ruble, importing goods from abroad was cheaper than bringing them from the "mainland," as continental Russia is called here. According to Potievsky, transport tariffs across Russia made goods too expensive and as a result foodstuffs came mainly from the U.S., South Korea, China, and Japan.
Vyacheslav Zviagintsev, manager of the private Krechet tourist company, one of Kamchatka's better established companies, said in August that even importing helicopter fuel from the U.S was "cheaper than importing it from Russia." Following a controversial agreement with the regional administration, Krechet has the exclusive right to bring tourist by helicopter to the Valley of Geysers, one of Kamchatka's most fascinating and visited sites.
However, foreign imports were paid in hard currency. Now, with Russia's banking and payments sector effectively paralyzed, most traders reportedly have had to interrupt their operations and many are in sinking in a sea of debt.
Revenues from tourism, which last year contributed 10 percent to the regional budget, according to Potievsky, will also fall, as the number of foreign and Russian tourists is set to decrease sharply.
Potievsky said that some 90 percent of foreign tourists came from Japan, a country which is itself now deeply mired in economic difficulties. He added that the regional administration is still determined to improve the tourist infrastructure, including upgrading the local airport. As for the Russian tourists, only in the past two years has Russia's emerging middle class started exploring its own country's best preserved wilderness, featuring 160 dormant and 29 active volcanoes, hot springs and rich wildlife.
Now, as the middle class's profits and prospects are being wiped away, Kamchatka's plans and foreseeable tourism revenues, estimated at over $1 billion in the next decade, are also likely to be in shambles, at least in the short term.
The main source of revenues for the budget and the population of Kamchatka, has traditionally been fisheries, not tourism. According to official data, more than 80 percent of budget revenues originate in the fishing industry and members of every family are involved in one way or another with the industry.
The waters of the icy Okhotsk Sea, Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean surrounding the peninsula give annually about 2 million tons of fish produce, including pollock, cod, sole and herring. Delicacies like eight different kinds of crab and all Pacific salmon species, including king salmon, are fished -- and poached -- here. A big part of the production is sold abroad, mainly to Japan, in many cases in deals directly at sea. Fishing authorities are widely accused of being involved with the activities of black market traders.
The phenomenal salmon run of this year could have been crucial to help Kamchatka's economy. But evidence is that waste due to lack of proper organization, poaching and bureaucratic ineptitude, may strangle profits.
The spectacle of rivers literally boiling with salmon is remarkable, but the sight on a recent visit by an RFE/RL correspondent to Kamchatka's coast, where trucks came to dump tons and tons of unprocessed dead fish is shocking. The salmon is caught, their precious red eggs that are to be sold as caviar are extracted, but the valuable fish are literally "good for nothing," as there are no facilities able to process them in large quantities. And, there are no refrigerating and transport facilities in place on land that would enable small fishing companies to bring the produce to markets outside Kamchatka.
"Such blind exploitation and waste of natural resources is criminal," said Masha Vorontsova, Russian coordinator of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"It is a sad sight indeed," concedes Pavel Gordeychuk, head of fishing expertise at Kamchatka's Federal Department for Protection and Reproduction of Fish Resources and Fisheries Regulations. "However," he explains, "since the breakup of the Soviet Union, fish processing facilities on land have collapsed, as previously state-run fishing companies were privatized and only now, amidst huge problems, are small steps bring taken to revive the sector."
To compensate the people of Kamchatka who are not able to help fishing companies with this year's salmon run, authorities have organized the free transport and distribution of tons of fish to the regional capital, Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky.
People who don't live in Petropavlovsk, as well as the wild bear population of Kamchatka, are stocking on fish as best they can, to make it through the long winter.
Unlike bears, people need licenses to fish in Kamchatka rivers. The local legislature approved only recently a law allowing fishing for survival, said Vitaly Menshikov, director of the Kamchatka parks administration, but people still risk being fined by inspectors who can interpret laws at their will. Despite the risk "literally every man is out fishing these days," said a woman in a village interviewed by a Russian television channel. "The need to feed families is greater than the fear of fines. And most shops in the North (of the peninsula) are running out of basic foodstuffs."
(This is the first of three articles by RFE/RL's Moscow-based correspondent Floriana Fossato, who recently visited the Russian Far East. It deals with how people in the rugged Kamchatka Peninsula are coping with Russia's economic crisis. Subsequent stories deal with the background to the chaotic political situation in Vladivostok, and with Sakhalin's tarnished dream of becoming a big oil exporting center.)