Pink Salmon Fishery in the Russian Far East

Narrative and photography by Mihael Blikshteyn for Fishermen’s News (October 2016). Reprinted with permission.

Sakhalin Island Salmon Fishery

Roughly half of global Pacific salmon harvest comes from Russia. The majority of it is pink salmon, accounting for 60 to 70% of the global supply. Chum, sockeye and coho salmon each make up about 30%, according to the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership website. However, these numbers vary from year to year and accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. Much of Russia’s domestic salmon production stays in the country. Some of it is sent to China or Korea for further processing before being exported to foreign markets, adding another layer of obscurity.

Russia’s Pacific salmon comes from the country’s Far East region. The region is divided into three primary areas – the Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin Island and the mainland. Kamchatka and Sakhalin supply the majority of salmon. In 2014, 139,300t of salmon came from Kamchatka and 105,800t from Sakhalin, according to the Undercurrent News. The remaining four Russian Far East mainland regions and the Kuril Islands, which are part of the greater Sakhalin region, produced a total of 95,400t.

Sakhalin fishermen rely primarily on coastal trap nets to harvest their salmon. It consists of a guiding mesh fence set perpendicularly to shore. The fence forms a long floating curtain more than 30 feet deep and stretching over a mile to sea, anchored to remain stationary. Floats hold it at the surface and weights stretch the curtain down, forming a fence that guides salmon into the traps.

Several floating wing-style fyke traps attach to the central lead line supporting the curtain. Returning salmon encounter the guiding curtain and follow it into the traps.

Rows of trap nets are placed on both sides of salmon-bearing streams to catch the fish approaching from either direction. By regulation, the nets cannot be closer than 1 km (0.6 mi) from the stream mouths and must be spaced at least 2 km (1.2 mi) apart.

Three or four fishermen in skiffs tend to the traps daily, emptying the fish from the traps by hand. It is a labor-intensive job, requiring pulling the trap mesh out of the water to concentrate the fish and emptying the fish into the boat. The fish are then transported a short distance to shore, where they are offloaded by crane at the beach and taken to a nearby fish-processing plant.

Many problems face these small, independent commercial fishery operations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, poaching became a rampant problem. Fishery research, monitoring and management are still severally underfunded and understaffed. Decisions by local and national government officials that affect these fisheries are often made through opaque processes with little input from their constituents or independent specialists.

To take control of their natural resources, a breed of local conservation organizations, local councils and community leaders and advocates sprang up in the region in the past decade. One of them is Vladimir Smirnov, a Sakhalin Island pink salmon commercial fishery operator and an advocate for wild, sustainable fisheries.


A Fishery Advocate

Smirnov’s remote commercial fishing camp, Plavnik (The Fin in Russian), is an outpost of half a dozen single-story wooden houses. Huddled together at the mouth of Langeri River in the northeastern corner of Sakhalin Island, the camp is rather an exception to the ones that dot the coastline. Perched on the remote section of the island’s coastline, the tiny, wind-swept community has all the amenities you might expect from a rustic bed and breakfast – running water, high-tech Japanese toilets with heated seats, a sauna and a large communal banya.

The owner and founder of Plavnik, Smirnov, is a savvy businessman and an entrepreneur. He runs his fishing camp of a dozen people as if it were a big family – the crew is well paid, respected and generally taken care of.

Smirnov is also an outspoken conservationist. His priorities are healthy, sustainable, wild salmon fisheries and the environment that supports them. In 2012 he made headlines with a presentation at a Russian fisheries symposium. He spoke up about the potential negative effects of an increasing number of Sakhalin salmon hatcheries on local, healthy, wild salmon runs. His was a dissenting voice among the Russians pushing for more hatcheries.

A salmon hatchery is a profitable enterprise. It can be built on any Sakhalin stream, according to Smirnov. Old Soviet hatcheries are being privatized and there is a push to increase the number of new hatcheries by several orders of magnitude. Although hatcheries themselves may not be profitable, hatchery owners get an exclusive claim to the returning salmon in that stream. By building new hatcheries, even on rivers with healthy salmon runs, entrepreneurs can effectively monopolize returning salmon stocks and fishing grounds.

Several hatcheries are currently being proposed to produce chum salmon on streams that now support only wild pink salmon runs. Once the hatchery is operational, the owner then sets up a commercial fishing operation in and around that stream with little monitoring or oversight from fishery scientists.

Government officials were not happy with Smirnov’s presentation. He was voted out of a regional salmon fishermen’s association over which he presided. The officials publicly lashed out at him, going as far as to accuse him of treason and collaboration with anti-Russian outside interests. Smirnov was in hot water, but far from giving up. He beefed up his private patrol that monitors and protects the nearby rivers from poaching. He deepened his ties to local conservation organizations.

One of these organizations was the Sakhalin Environment Watch (SEW). Together with the SEW, Smirnov began tackling the three main threats to the wild salmon stocks on Sakhalin Island – poaching, proposed proliferation of salmon hatcheries and the blocking of salmon streams with fishing weirs.

At that time, a new in-river fishing method was becoming popular. Until the late 2000s, there was no large-scale in-river fishing on Sakhalin Island. Against a wave of protests, the regional government changed the rules to allow the use of temporary weirs.

Commercial fishermen were allowed to set weirs across the full width of salmon streams to prevent the “over-escapement” of fish to the spawning grounds. Government officials declared that letting more than two salmon per square meter of the spawning ground pass would result in lower egg and salmon fry survival. This thinking was based on an obscure Russian report from the 1960s.

Once a stream’s mouth was blocked with a weir, the fish were scooped out with a bailer and sold for profit. In theory, companies who were permitted to do that were supposed to keep track of the number of salmon allowed to pass to fulfill the escapement goals. In practice, there was little independent oversight and enforcement and hardly any stream-specific data were available to set the escapement goals.

According to the SEW website, there were 79 of these weirs on Sakhalin Island in 2009. The nonprofit organization along with Vladimir Smirnov and other groups energized a strong opposition to this practice. Sakhalin residents and advocates mounted a vocal campaign. Under pressure and scrutiny, the practice became less acceptable. In 2012, there were 51 such weirs, in 2015 – 23. According to Smirnov, the weirs can now be used only on streams with hatcheries, although the problem of letting the wild salmon stocks pass remains. Still, Smirnov says, it’s a victory for the wild salmon as temporary weirs is no longer an acceptable form of fishing.

When Smirnov started fishing on Langeri River, poaching was a big issue in the region. Caviar is big money. Groups of people would fly in on helicopters or drive to the spawning areas, cut salmon for roe and leave hundreds or thousands of dead fish behind to rot. With official wildlife enforcement badly understaffed and underfunded, Smirnov created his own anti-poaching patrol troops.

Each of Smirnov’s patrols is accompanied by a policeman or a wildlife officer. The patrols provide transportation and manpower to help apprehend violators and destroy their gear. The enforcement writes citations and apprehends serious violators.

This year alone, Smirnov’s regional fishery association allocated 12.5 million rubles ($194,000) to protect from poaching 11 salmon rivers along 110 km (68 mi) of the coastline. They also collaborated with the fishermen from the north to protect an additional 100 km (62 mi) of the coastline and are working to get the fishermen from the more southern region to join in as well.

The citizen anti-poaching efforts are very successful. Smirnov said they don’t find any big poaching operations anymore. Although they find poachers almost every day, those are small groups of people who kill 20 or 30 fish at a time, instead of the hundreds or thousands a decade ago.

Smirnov also led the way to have his fishery certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), only the second such fishery in the Russian Far East. When he successfully underwent the certification, a lengthy and expensive process, he could not reap any of its benefits. He does not own his own fish-processing plant and the one he uses is not MSC certified. Without this certification, he cannot market his fish with the eco-label.

Then why did he go through the certification? For Smirnov, the process, and the press he received from it, was a way to attract attention to the problems facing the wild salmon stocks on Sakhalin Island. Perhaps, with greater demand for sustainable seafood and the appreciation of all of its challenges, it would take the Smirnovs of the world to effect the needed change