Final of five parts
Astrakhan is the last major city downstream on the Volga River, on the edge of a delta reaching into the Caspian Sea. This is the spawning ground for beluga and its cousin, the highly prized Caspian sturgeon, which together produce four-fifths of the world's black caviar.
Astrakhan has long been known as Russia's caviar capital -- but no more. As the fish neared extinction in the 1990s, Russia declared the situation critical. It has banned all commercial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian basin and the export of all black caviar.
Now, both the sturgeon and the local people struggle to survive.
Not so long ago, Astrakhan's fish market glistened with heaps of affordable fresh caviar -- sturgeon's gooey black eggs, often called "black gold."
But these days, the only caviar legally available there is from government-regulated fish farms. There aren't a lot of them and they don't come near to meeting Russian and world demand for caviar -- even at a whopping $1,000 to $2,000 per kilogram on the official market.
The economic decline is reflected in the crumbling one-story wooden buildings that still make up much of the city center.
Gennady Rozenberg, a biologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences in the Volga city of Togliatti, says the government needs to do more now to encourage sturgeon farming.
He says these farms can help restore stocks, produce more caviar, cut down on the black market and boost the faltering local economy.
"Perhaps it's not yet clear to Moscow that natural resources like sturgeon are no less valuable than oil, gas and coal, on which Russia currently lives. I think our government simply doesn't understand this can be a significant source of income," he says.
Sturgeon's Dramatic Decline
Devotees of caviar date back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Russian czars had a monopoly on its sale. Before the 1917 revolution, churches on the Volga were not allowed to ring their bells as the giant fish came upriver for fear of disturbing their spawning.
But the numbers of sturgeon suddenly showed a dramatic decline in the late 1990s. There are various views on what led to this and what their future may be now.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin destroyed key spawning grounds with the construction of a series of hydroelectric stations along the Volga. Some experts believe that is the key to the near disappearance of these strange-looking prehistoric fish, which had managed to outlast the dinosaurs.
Victor Chlpinov, a biologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences in Astrakhan, says others believe overfishing is at the heart of the problem.
"In Soviet times, official fishing was big, but illegal fishing was 9 or 10 times that, even then. And after the Soviet Union fell apart and all controls evaporated, poaching just exploded," Chlpinov says.
Whatever the reason, the result was a precipitous drop in sturgeon -- down 90 percent since 1970 and 40 percent alone in 2000 to 2001.
Scientists are allocated small quotas of sturgeon to breed and release into the wild. Alexander Kokoza, a professor specializing in sturgeon at Astrakhan's Technical University, says it will take years to determine the success of the program.
"These fish don't reach maturity for 8 to 18 years. And though a female releases 250,000 to 400,000 eggs at a time, only two to three fish survive from this incredible amount," he says.
Government Efforts To Protect Fish
The Russian government also recently introduced a number of measures to curb poaching, says Vladimir Karpenko, an official with the fish control agency in Astrakhan.
"There is now a strict system of inspections," he says, adding the Russian officials have stepped up surveillance. "We have small motor boats, cars, and now we have drones, though we still have to learn how to work with them."
Karpenko insists poaching is down dramatically. Some reports, however, suggest poachers continue to send Moscow a yearly supply of 250 metric tons in illegal caviar, compared to 8 metric tons produced legally.
A senior official in Karpenko's office is currently under investigation for sturgeon poaching, something Karpenko refused to discuss.
Local taxi drivers say they can find black market caviar, but put to the test, it was actually hard to come by -- either because the illegal stock has been moved on to richer Moscow where prices are higher or because controls are now taking effect.
And there aren't just controls on sturgeon. Government quotas on other fish have now been imposed to reverse the decline of the chaotic '90s. Quotas are distributed through a complicated application process, which by all accounts is rife with corruption.
As fish police head out into the Volga, their boat passes the shells of former factories --among them many fish-processing plants now out of business
Fisherman Vasily Suzranov says controls are working. The ban on commercial sturgeon fishing has reduced his salary dramatically; he now makes about $500 a month. That's a good salary in these parts, but nothing like what he once earned, he says.
But at least his collective still has the right to catch other fish.
Local Communities Hurting
Not so in other villages in the Volga delta, which have lost all fishing rights. In the village of Zelenga, the fish collective is the last local industry to shut down.
Nina Saraikina, with the local government, is in despair.
"The collective here didn't win a quota for any commercial fishing, let alone sturgeon. There are no jobs left here," Saraikina says.
Zelenga may join the list of thousands of Russian villages that have disappeared from the map. The deserted dirt roads are lined with ramshackle wooden houses, their siding scavenged from fish crates, a testimony to another era. Decay is setting in.
Exotic lotuses bloom in the river. Pelicans, flamingos, herons and many other migratory species make this a birders' paradise.
But tourism is in its infancy. For now, local officials concede poaching is the only way for some to put food on the table despite the risks.
"It's hard to catch sturgeon these days, but there are people who by chance get a fish, and it's hard to refuse a pot of gold," says Chlpinov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Someone who earns nothing or maybe $120 a month suddenly realizes he can get $10,000 in a day."
Chlpinov says if sturgeon and people are to thrive along the Volga, the region -- as all Russia today -- needs investment and jobs.