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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Big sea, no fish

The unique fishing grounds of the Sea of Azov are being destroyed by poachers, metallurgical works, and officials
23 November, 2010 - 00:00

This fall the residents of the Donbas have failed to enjoy the traditional sea fish delights from the Sea of Azov. The fish stalls are virtually empty. Incidental fish sellers charge exorbitant prices: 15 hryvnias per kilo of fine gobies, all heads and bones, and up to 30 hryvnias per kilo of mullet. As far as the famous Azov zander goes, it is priceless at the moment, as it is not to be found.

One can only yearn for last spring, when fish dealers had, due to a lack of powerful refrigerators during a sudden heatwave, to sell the fresh catch for a song, much to the delight of local old age pensioners, who lined up with huge shopping bags at the odorous fish counters. However, even this unspoiled category is certainly not able to make a six months’ supply of fish.

Yet today the authorities are anxious to reassure residents, saying that it is the abnormally warm fall that will not let the water masses chill as usual. So the shoals of fish will not hurry to come to the shallow waters closer to the shore where local fishermen are waiting with their nets.

However, another take on the issue is circulating among the fishermen: the fishing grounds are exhausted because fish populations have dropped to a critical level in the Sea of Azov. This informal conclusion of fishing experts is de facto proven by a joint Ukraine-Russia commission on fisheries, which recently held a session in the seaside town of Berdiansk. Svitlana Chekmeniova, the key ichtiologist at the Mariupol fishery inspection, summarized the session, saying that experts from both countries opined that fishing quotas be reduced by at least one-third.

In particular, the quotas for the most popular fish, the mullet, will not exceed 9,000 tons, the goby quote is fixed at 4,500 tons, with only 76 tons for the precious plaice. For the umpteenth time the total ban on sturgeon fishing was renewed, with a few exceptions for scholars developing a technology for restoring the fishing grounds of the chronically “sick” sea.

It reminds one that a hundred years ago the Sea of Azov was so abundant in fish that people in the seaside villages would dry it and burn it in furnaces to heat their homes in winter. In the Soviet times, sardelles were dirt cheap and were fed to pigs on collective farms.

The treatment of the unique Azov fauna, as if it were free and inexhaustible, is one of the main reason for the gradual impoverishment of the waters: first the royal beluga and sturgeon disappeared, then the vimba bream moved to the list of endangered species and fishermen’s tales (they were so fat that they had to be carved in a deep bowl as they oozed with fat while being cooked). The true Azov sea roach, so transparent that it was see-through, only remains in gourmets’ memories.

What can be said of precious species when even the fine but delicious Azov shemaia herring has totally disappeared. In balmier days it was pickled in huge barrels right on the beach and promptly shipped to big cities — a few day’s road was enough to turn it into a dainty.

On the eve of Gorbachev’s perestroika, mullet from the Far East was brought there when it had become clear that the fishing grounds of the Sea of Azov were disastrously exhausted. The modest newcomer began to feel at home and started to push out the traditional zander. Today, it is the mullet, and also the humble sprat that constitute the vast majority of the local fishermen’s official catch.

However, and it is common knowledge, there is another, so to speak, latent constituent of the yearly harvest of “quick silver.”


Local poachers have been an age-long enemy of the local fish. According to the reckoning of fishing inspectors and NGOs in the Donbas, amost two-thirds of the catch sold at the local markets during each fishing season is illegal. You may ask, “Where on earth are the law enforcers and the administrative bodies?” The answer is always the same: “they are in the poachers’ pockets.” The latter, wishing to keep their criminal businesses adrift, have to regularly pay off the representatives of innumberable “sponsors.”

Meanwhile, many fishing inspectors literally risk their lives at sea trying to catch the pirates of Azov. Those times when a poacher, caught by fishing inspectors, would just cut off the lead to his fishing net and dump tens of kilos of illegal catch overboard to get rid of any evidence are long gone. Nowadays, taking into account the expensive fishing tackle and the price of the catch, they will more and more often engage in armed resistance. There are numerous off-the-record stories told by fishing inspectors — of machine guns sometimes fired to warn them about their unwanted presence in the spots where seine nets have been set.

As a result, the specialized fishing inspection has to seek support from the Azov-based Ukrainian border marine troops, whose fast armored patrol boats accompany them in raids. Poachers are unable to oppose the border guards, who have greater firepower. Yet, having paid the fine and made new nets and tackle, they once again set off for their “night shift job.”

For the sake of justice one must note that poaching is risky and strongly relies on fisherman’s good luck. If a storm or fishing inspectors stop poachers from emptying the seine nets they have already set, the caught fish goes bad, so it cannot be sold. Sometimes an even worse thing happens — when the bottom nets are so badly caught in the silt that it is impossible to lift them. Sometimes the usually placid Sea of Azov will show its nasty temper and batter the boats with unexpected squalls. That is exactly the reason for the death of two experienced fishermen this November, near the village of Hurzuf.


Paradoxically enough, several years ago the Sea of Azov saw a “baby boom” in the population of the expensive and delicious zander. Huge, appetizing fish decorated all foodstore counters, and prices were quite modest. The explanation was quite simple: the metallurgical plants of Donbas were in deep stagnation back then and, correspondingly, minimized the waste they emptied into the shallow sea. The marine population reacted to the “break in the clouds” and jumped to catch the chance (probably, the last one) to survive.

The port of Mariupol, a major city on the Azov coast, for some senseless reason has traditionally been considered a health resort. Meanwhile, this “sea gate of Azov” can boast of two metallurgical giants, the Illich Metallurgical Plant and Azovstal Steel Works. According to environmentalists in Mariupol, both enterprises poison the sea on whose shore they are situated, and do it quite deliberately.

It is hard to refute this, given that only this year the State Ecological Inspection has registered 29 claims against them, with a total cost of 25.6 million hryvnias. The owners of the metallurgical plants plainly refuted the claims, preferring to be involved in endless litigation. Yet even if the “dirty” millions are eventually paid, the size of the fines is more than inadequate to the scale of profits and the damage to the environment.

Fish, however, are not quite senseless. “It is enough to sail about 30 kilometers off Mariupol towards the Russian shore, and the water is quite different, much cleaner,” said the director of the Mariupol fishing inspection Vadym Lytvynenko. “That is where shoals of fish can be found now.” Thus, the “quick silver of Azov,” born near the shores of Ukraine, eventually “emigrates” for good.

For years the officials of Ukraine and Russia have been negotiating over the distribution of territorial waters in the Sea of Azov. Our neighbors have chosen the tactics of exhausting litigation, slowly but steadily gaining advantage of controlling navigable fairways and oil- and gas-bearing shelf areas. The Azov fishermen say that unless the “fish issue” is put on the agenda of international negotiations, we will be left empty-handed.


An unusual event attracted virtually all the residents of the raion town of Novoazovsk to the mouth of a minor river — the Hruzky Yelanchyk. A local private enterprise decided to release 70 thousand sturgeon fries. The tiny fish aristocrats, bred in special tanks with running water, were bailed out with pails at first; later, when the workers were exhausted, the owners used a tank truck. According to the director of the charitable company Mykola Hnatushenko, this project involved the purchasing of four kilograms of “live” sturgeon roe, which had cost the company a pretty penny. Besides, they also had to hire a patrol boat for several days to guard the baby sturgeons till they got used to freedom and migrated farther from the shore.

It all looks fine, but it is now rumored that another company is planning to breed the traditional local species of cartilaginous fish in tanks. They say that in the wild it takes the sturgeon about a decade to grow up, and only a few in a thousand fries will survive. Conversely, the latest technologies can be used to breed the “royal fish” and produce the famous Azov caviar, and eventually turn into delicacies like balyk [cured sturgeon fillets. – Ed.], just like broiler chickens, all at one battery farm, without ever feeling the waves warmed by the southern sun.

Perhaps eventually such fish, bred “in vitro,” will appear on our tables. But it will have nothing to do with the unique Sea of Azov.

By Serhii KOROBCHUK, Donetsk