Poacher paradise? A new U.N. initiative will help preserve salmon habitat in four key Kamchatka rivers, including the Zhupanova.

Conservation, Not Caviar

Pacific salmon in Russia have been hit hard by poachers seeking to cash in on the lucrative market for red caviar. But this week the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a 5-year, $13 million initiative to crack down on poachers and promote research and habitat conservation in the salmon-rich rivers of Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula.

With six oceangoing and two freshwater species, Kamchatka boasts the greatest diversity of salmonids in the world: An estimated 25% of all wild salmon in the Pacific spawn here. For decades the salmon were protected by Kamchatka's status as a restricted military zone during the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, a depressed economy has turned an unknown number of the peninsula's 350,000 residents into poachers. Russia's Northeastern Fisheries Committee estimates that poachers in Kamchatka ship out $1 billion worth of salmon caviar annually; the 300 to 400 grams of eggs that each female carries can fetch up to $50.

The poaching has resulted in an ecological nightmare. "Poachers are permanently destroying these spawning grounds," fumes Oleg Pustovit, an ichthyologist with the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, Oregon. The genetic integrity of salmon populations in these rivers, "will be ruined ... within a decade," unless something is done to curtail the poaching, he predicts.

The new UNDP program hopes to do that by boosting the budgets of antipoaching programs and make them more effective by bringing together government and academic institutions in a bid to conserve salmon habitat in four major Kamchatka rivers. The initiative follows on the heels of a $16 million UNDP program for improved wildlife protection and research in the region (Science, 13 September 2002, p. 1787).

The program also includes research funds that will enable researchers such as Moscow State University ichthyologist Kirill Kuzishchin to undertake radiotagging and DNA sampling for experiments that could explain whether the salmon purposefully choose between freshwater and saltwater habitats and why they spawn where they are born. "These are some of the biggest questions," says Kuzishchin. "We feel a lot more confident now that we will find the answers."

Related site
The Wild Salmon Center's Kamchatka Salmon Biodiversity Program