New York Times : June 27, 2002
By: Sabrina Tavernise
A Violent Death Exposes Fish
Piracy in Russia
YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Russia -- The ports
are quiet in the remote Russian island of Sakhalin, just north of
Japan. Fishing boats return home empty. Most canneries stopped operating
But further out in the waters off the
narrow, green island off Russia's eastern coast, boats jockey for
position to catch the region's valuable crabs and fish. The catches
are destined for Japan, avoiding Russian ports, taxes and fishing
Vitaly Gamov, a career military man and commander in Russia's border
guards, came here in November 2000 to fight that illegal fishing.
His mission cost him his life.
In late May, attackers threw three flaming jars of gasoline through
his kitchen window. He died from the burns a week later. His wife,
Larisa, recently regained consciousness after five skin grafts in
a hospital in Japan. Their 14-year old son, Ivan, escaped unharmed.
General Gamov died trying to change the
rules in a system that is built on the corrupt compromises between
business and the government that have taken hold in Russia in the
chaotic decade since the fall of the Soviet Union.
President Vladimir V. Putin says he wants
to break those links, but the roots run deep.
Last year Mr. Putin's economics minister insisted on the sale of
fishing rights at auctions to get more revenue from the industry
and move control of it to Moscow. That infuriated regional governors
and fishing companies that until then had fished virtually free.
''Sakhalin has very big poaching problems,''
said Sergei Darkin, governor of the neighboring Primorsky region.
''Gamov fought hard against poaching.''
After the fire, Mr. Putin intervened
to send a severely burned General Gamov to a hospital in Japan.
Local clinics were not well enough equipped to treat his injuries.
In recent years Russia has lost control of the fishing industry
here, as it has of much else. When the government imposed fishing
quotas and tried to levy taxes on the profits of Russian fishermen,
the fishermen responded by falsifying their records and delivering
their catches directly to Japan and South Korea, where the buyers
asked no questions.
A 2001 study by the World Wildlife Fund of illegal fishing in the
Russian portion of the Bering Sea found evidence of illegal activities
at ''virtually all levels'' of the industry.
The report estimates that fishing firms illegally strip $4 billion
from the waters each year, ''putting numerous marine species at
risk and contributing to the collapse'' of fish supplies.
The Russian border patrol of which General
Gamov was a part, impoverished by budget cuts and hampered by widespread
corruption, is no match for the rich and powerful industry. One
fishing company manager on Sakhalin said border guards would agree
to ignore a poacher's boat in return for a $2,500 bribe.
Illegal fishing costs the government about $500 million a year in
missed taxes, according to the State Fishing Committee.
Evidence of declining stocks abounds.
One Sakhalin crab poacher, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity,
said that in the early 1990's he caught enough to make three selling
runs a week to Japan. Last year he made the trip barely once a week.
''We always had poachers, but never in these proportions,'' said
the president of the Far East Fishery Association, Vladimir Gorshechnikov.
''I've been in fishing for many years, but even for me this situation
While stocks shrink and fishing has increased
rather than abated, official government figures show a collapse.
In 1990, before the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia caught 7.8
million tons of fish. Four years later, official counts had fallen
by more than half, to 3.5 million tons.
General Gamov made many enemies after
arriving on Sakhalin. He agreed with the Japanese authorities that
Russian boats in Japanese ports must tighten reporting on their
catches. He set up more control stations at sea. Through his lobbying,
the Sakhalin regional prosecutor began investigating 44 Russian
fishing vessels flagged in an audit by Japan.
''Gamov created a system that was closing
the poaching flows in the direction of Japan,'' said Viktor Fokanov,
a fishing company owner in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. ''If you close the
flow, poaching disappears. He knew how to do this, and he didn't
have far to go.''
In December 2001, President Putin promoted him, making him one of
the youngest generals in the Russian military at 39.
The military had been his life. Even
as a child growing up in a small town in Kazakhstan, Vitaly Gamov
was drawn to the army. His sister, Galina Spiridonova, recalled
that he had led his school team to victory in a war game.
Those who knew General Gamov socially
said he was outgoing, liked to play the accordion in his spare time,
treated his men with respect and worked long hours.
But he rose through the ranks of a system that had been deformed
by economic crisis. After the Soviet Union collapsed at the end
of 1991, the Russian government could no longer afford to finance
its military. Units like his were plunged into poverty. They faced
the impossible task of defending Russia's borders without funding.
As living conditions deteriorated, taking
bribes was a way to survive. Igor Barabanov, a lieutenant colonel
on the Kurile Islands further out in the Pacific, served briefly
under General Gamov. He recalled lacking basics, like soap, and
fruits and vegetables. Visiting superiors told him to ''find yourself
''I was supposed to go to local businessmen
and ask for financial support,'' said Mr. Barabanov, who now works
as a security guard in the Primorsky region. ''It was humiliating.
Some of them would just give money. Maybe they had served in the
army themselves once. But others would want things in return.''
Mr. Barabanov said that from 1993 to
1996, ''the border was completely open.''
Some officers got rich. Others just got by. General Gamov lived
modestly in a third-floor apartment of a nine-story concrete-slab
building on a pothole-ridden street in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island's
His neighbor Yelena Romanova said he
did not own a car. He often spent free time among families of the
apartment building, most of whom served in the military.
Like others here, Ms. Romanova is still stunned by the general's
murder. Digging in a flower bed that adorns the apartment building,
she pointed to a tree planted in his honor, and recalled that he
had helped her get soil for the small garden.
Most here say criminals from a mid-size fishing firm were to blame,
since the murder was clumsy and amateurish, like a warning gone
wrong. The authorities have arrested several men believed to be
the hired killers but have not answered the question of who hired
For General Gamov's sister and family,
who live in the southwestern Russian city of Sochi on the Black
Sea, his death remains a mystery.
''The last time he came to visit,
my brother was reserved,'' said Ms. Spiridonova, the general's sister.
''All of a sudden I realized that he was in danger. I asked what
happened. Vitaly just said, 'They wouldn't dare,' and refused to