The day I arrived in Khabarovsk for a symposium on fisheries conservation, there was an article on the front page of the Pacific Ocean Star, the city's daily newspaper, about a police investigation into the assassination of the state governor. The investigators were saying that he had been killed by organized-crime bosses who had gained control of whole sections of the coastal fishing industry.
But no one was certain, and nor could anyone say with any certainty who had murdered the senior fisheries-enforcement officer on Sakhalin Island. The year before, he had begun a crackdown on high-seas poaching. Some said his assassins were from a Japanese organized-crime syndicate. Others pointed to the Japanese gangs' Russian-mafia clients.
It was a mystery -- as is the extent of the "shock therapy" that the transition from communism has brought to Russia's eastern rivers and Pacific waters. Outside the country, the magnitude of what has been happening is largely unknown.
For example, a series of photographs had been making their way around Khabarovsk. In the pictures, a well-known "new capitalist," an avid sports fisherman, was shown standing on a snow-covered riverbank, holding up a giant, dead Amur River taimen.
Taimen are a kind of salmon, from the ancient genus Hucho, a race of giants that arose about 40 million years ago. They are known as the "tiger of ichthyofauna" because of their size and ferocity, and also because they were becoming as rare as tigers.
The taimen of the Amur River are the world's largest salmonids: an adult specimen looks like an Atlantic salmon but is the size of a full-grown man. They have been known to weigh 100 kilograms, and to reach lengths of two metres or more.
Tribal fishermen along the Amur were known to bait their hooks with dead dogs to catch them, but nobody was catching taimen very often any more, at least not the big ones. The legendary taimen are rapidly disappearing, becoming as scarce as the Amur (formerly Siberian) tiger, the largest cat species on earth, whose numbers have fallen below 500. And it is mainly because of poaching.
What had got people talking about the photographs was that the fish was especially huge -- and it was dead. A broadly supported campaign had sprung up along the Amur to stop killing taimen, to allow only careful catch-and-release sport fishing. The new capitalist in the photographs was popular in local fishing-guide circles. He should have known better, everybody said.
The Amur is one of the world's 10 great rivers. It covers 4,400 kilometres, serving as the border with China for much of that distance, and is also known by its more ancient name, the Heilongjiang, which means River of the Black Dragon.
It has always been famous for its mysterious giant fish. Along with the taimen, there is the Amur kaluga, the largest freshwater fish in the world. Found nowhere else on earth, the kaluga is a kind of sturgeon that can reach the weight of a dozen men, 1,000 kilograms, and grow to six metres.
Like the taimen, the kaluga was rapidly disappearing into the boiling cauldron of gangsterism and poverty that had made fish poaching, illegal hunting, and illegal logging the dominant industries in much of the hinterland of the Khabarovsk territory. It was a state of affairs that was making a lot of people very angry and positively nostalgic for the days before perestroika.
Sergei Zolotukhin, the Russian government's sober and heavy-browed senior salmon biologist for the Khabarovsk territory, offered a grim forecast over lunch one day. Without a radical change in the entire political and economic regime, the situation was pretty well hopeless, he reckoned. "It is always poaching now," he said. "The law has no teeth."
How things got so bad so quickly is a story that begins with the rapid emergence of a criminal oligarchy after Boris Yeltsin seized state power in 1991. The largest economic enterprises in the Russian Far East were once Soviet collectives, but during the 1990s most became private monopolies controlled by former Communist Party administrators, who had transformed themselves, almost overnight, into "new capitalists." Private businesses ended up with almost all the forest licences and most of the region's vast mineral deposits. The forests that remained in public hands were being clear-cut by criminal outfits. Journalists who tried to report on the situation did so at the risk of their lives.
Russia's Pacific fish stocks were plundered. Fishing quotas were assigned to new quasi-legal corporations that sublet their shares to foreign fleets, mainly shady Japanese enterprises that counted, as a simple cost of doing business, the lease fees they deposited into gangsters' foreign accounts. Russian naval and coast guard forces were powerless to stop what had degenerated into a massive poaching free-for-all. The naval base at Russky Island, which lies almost within sight of Vladivostok Harbour, was cut off from its basic food supplies; more than 1,000 officers and crew had to be evacuated to the mainland to be treated for severe malnutrition. Four sailors starved to death.
The salmon that made it through the high-seas fisheries gauntlet into the rivers of the region often fell to poaching syndicates, some of which were so well capitalized that they could afford to build roads to the more remote rivers.
Roe-stripping -- tearing egg sacks out of female salmon before they have the chance to spawn -- became the main source of income in vast areas. The illegal sale of chum salmon roe to Japan became a multimillion-dollar business. The poachers' catch ended up eclipsing the legal catch by Russian commercial fishermen.
It was anarchy, says Misha Skopets, a 47-year-old biologist who has been called the Indiana Jones of Russian fisheries conservation. One sunny afternoon, to illustrate his point, he took me to the Khabarovsk central market. There were tonnes of fish for sale, and most had been caught in the Amur.
Because it traverses both the monsoon region and the Siberian region of the temperate climatic belt, the Amur is richer in its diversity of species than any other river in Russia, with a range of species that occur nowhere else on earth and a dazzling array of relic species from the Pleistocene and Pliocene epochs.
"There, a yellowcheek," a barracuda-like fish that can grow to roughly 50 kilograms, Misha said. "This is red book," a reference to Russia's "red list" of endangered species. He lifted it out of the pile, to take a closer look. "Definitely red book. Very rare fish.
"And that's just what you can see. Ask any of these people, and they will get you any kind of caviar, or taimen, or anything you want."
Even when fisheries-enforcement officers managed to do their work, their efforts often came to naught. In 2003, the Amur Fish Authority laid more than 1,000 criminal charges against poachers. The overworked prosecutor's office followed up on only 26 cases. Only a handful of those actually ended up in court.
Fish inspectors on the Amur earned monthly salaries that amounted to less than $100 (U.S.). Every night, from May to September, poachers in fleets of rowboats set hooks in the Amur for kaluga. The caviar from a single fish could easily yield a poacher the equivalent of a fish inspector's annual salary. Bribery was commonplace.
Russian authorities fought hard to convince China to scale back its pollution of the Amur's many Chinese tributaries. Chinese authorities responded by demanding that Russia curtail its illegal fishing. The two countries did form a special Amur fisheries commission in 1994 -- but then spent the next decade arguing about quotas and net-mesh sizes.
In the Amur's lower section, which falls entirely within Russia, fishermen caught as many fish from migratory stocks as they could before the fish reached Chinese waters. At times the only thing stopping the Russian fishermen from catching everything was the pollution from the Chinese tributaries, which made the fish downstream inedible for months at a time.
But poaching was the main reason the River of the Black Dragon was losing its giants, and its smaller species too. That was one thing everybody seemed to agree upon.
One day at the conference, Misha stood up, put his notes down, set aside the language of environmentalism, and spoke from his heart.
"I think these poachers should be bombed," he said.
The hall fell silent.
Later, outside the seminar room, Misha said: "He is not really a bad man. He was being ignorant. But things do not change overnight."
There was a tall man in a suit down the hall, but I didn't know what Misha meant. "It is the man in the photographs," he explained, "with the big taimen."
Misha introduced us. The man handed me his business card, an outlandish-looking thing with a picture of an Amur tiger on it. Underneath his name, it read, "Extreme tourism, fishing, ecological tours, photo, video." This was the guy everybody had been talking about at the airport.
Over coffee, he pulled out two 8-by-10 glossy colour photographs and said: "You can have."
In one photograph, a man in a red ski suit lies in the snow beside a giant fish that looks just like an Atlantic salmon, except it's as big as the man. In the background are a tent and a pile of camping gear on a gravel bar and an inflatable boat with two fishing rods leaning up against it.
In the other photograph, my coffee companion himself is standing in knee-high wading boots, in the same spot, in front of the inflatable boat. He's holding the taimen upright, by its gills, and he's straining under the weight of it. The taimen's tail is bloody, trailing in the snow.
He told me he'd caught it at the mouth of the Anui River, at its confluence with the Amur, about 250 kilometres downstream from Khabarovsk. "It is my hobby," he said, smiling.
But later, when I showed the photographs to two Russian taimen experts, it didn't take them much close inspection to discern that the fishing rods in the picture were just for show. The prints were clear enough to reveal net marks on the taimen's head, meaning it had been caught illegally.
"It is obvious they knew this was a wintering pool," one expert said, "and they just went out to get it."
Terry Glavin is a renowned writer, conservationist and an adjunct professor with the University of British Columbia's fine arts department who lives on Mayne, one of B.C.'s Gulf Islands. This article is taken from his latest book, Waiting for the Macaws, to be published next Friday by Penguin Group (Canada).