MOSCOW - Poaching and pollution are threatening to wipe out Russia's sturgeon - and the luxurious caviar they produce - officials warned Thursday, admitting they're failing in a decade-long struggle to save the lucrative fishery.
Poorly paid police overlook poachers in exchange for bribes, as the government scrapes for funds to fight the illegal caviar business. Oil spills and dam construction, meanwhile, have severely diminished the sturgeon's habitat.
The abolition of the State Environment Committee this spring has aggravated matters, leaving less oversight over the fish and their surroundings, said activists at a round table on Russia's sturgeon, once the source of most the world's caviar.
Sturgeon stocks nationwide are down to about 5,000 tons, from 42,000-45,000 in 1980, said Boris Kotenev, director of the state fisheries industry research institute.
Just a fraction of those are caught legally; poachers take in 11 times as much as the legal catch, round table members said.
Poaching often starts with desperately poor villagers netting sturgeon whose eggs are worth many times the average monthly salary. They easily evade police in their remote towns, and their contraband is compact and easy to smuggle.
Caviar poaching has sapped a key source of income to Russia's wobbly economy since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which strictly controlled the trade. The Interior Ministry estimates that the official caviar trade brought in $40 million a year for Russia in the late 1990s, compared with $500 million a year for the poachers.
Russia has dropped to No. 2 world caviar producer behind Iran, which is also on the Caspian Sea, and will export 60 percent less black caviar this year than in 1999, officials said.
''Most likely, sturgeon as a species will continue to exist,'' said Igor Chestin, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Russia office. ''But it's a question of whether it will continue to be a commercial fish.''
Most attention has been on shrinking sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea. But the situation is more desperate in the Azov Sea, bordered by Russia and Ukraine, warned Georgy Roben, sturgeon specialist with the Institute of Evolution Ecology.
Russia sets quotas for sturgeon fishing to limit depopulation, and its quota for the Azov last year was 120 tons, Roben said. But only 45 tons were caught.
''There wasn't any more to catch,'' Roben said.
Russia's government is reportedly considering introducing a state caviar monopoly, hoping to stem poaching and bring more profits into state coffers. Some observers welcomed the idea, while others said it would enrich corrupt officials.
It could cripple villages in sturgeon-rich areas, such as the Volga River delta on the Caspian and the Amur River in Russia's Far East, where poaching has become the sole source of income for many residents.
A pound of poached Caspian beluga caviar can fetch $45 in Moscow, while it could run $1,575 in the United States.
Increased fines for poaching have made little difference, admitted Grigory Kovalev, director of the Glavrybvod fish breeding agency.
''It's directly tied to the economic situation. People feel they have no choice'' but to fish illegally, he said.
Chestin criticized the dissolution in May of the ecology committee, which was absorbed by the Ministry for Natural Resources - the agency assigned with using Russia's vast territorial resources, not protecting them.
''That has severely harmed progress'' in saving sturgeon, he said.