Finding a ship that doesn’t want to be found is almost impossible on Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, 600,000 square miles of icy water north of Japan, and the Iskander was doing its best to remain hidden. The rusting hull of the 180-foot ship bore no name, and its transmitters had been disabled. In the right light, it might have disappeared into the low-hanging clouds that often blanket the waters off Russia’s east coast. But it didn’t.
According to a November 2013 incident report, the Border Guard Service of Russia—the functional equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard—first tried hailing the unidentified ship. There was a moment of static before a response from the vessel crackled over the radio: “SRTM-K Breeze.” That is not, in fact, one of the ship’s many names, which in the last five years has gone by Afeliy, Costa Rapida, Status, and, most recently, Iskander. But what is a pirate to say?
The conversation didn’t last. The exchange had barely ended when the Iskander’s engines cranked to full throttle, and the vessel began to pull away. When attempts to intercept it failed, the border patrol fired warning shots, pocking the water behind the ship. These went unheeded. The Iskander continued to run, the border patrol chased, and meanwhile, the crew frantically dumped its cargo of live king crab overboard.
Exactly how long the chase lasted is unclear, but “after exhausting all other means,” the border patrol report says, the commander had his gunners fire a second round. These weren’t warning shots. As the bullets flew past the Iskander’s wheelhouse, the ship finally slowed to a stop. Out in the middle of the ocean, the border patrol agents clambered aboard the Cambodian-flagged fishing vessel, rounded up the 18 crew members—14 Russians and 4 Indonesians—and turned the ship toward Petropavlovsk, the capital of Russia’s easternmost province, Kamchatka. It wouldn’t stay there long.
The Iskander is one of an unknown number of ships full of nameless fishermen who poach crab valued at more than $700 million from Russia’s waters every year, according to the Russian government. They’re part of the bigger, global industry of pirate fishing, which the conservation group Oceana estimates takes at least $10 billion—and maybe more than double that—of seafood a year from the world’s waters in violation of various national and international laws. The crab poachers are also a key part of the global supply chain. King crab legally harvested in Alaska mostly goes to Asia, where it fetches a higher price, while cheaper king crab from Russia gets imported to the U.S. to fulfill domestic demand. The last major bust of an importer occurred in 2011, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association seized $2.5 million in illegal king crab from a Seattle storage facility belonging to an American company called Harbor Seafood. (While a similar dollar value of cocaine carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence, no charges were filed in that case. Harbor Seafood, which claimed to have no knowledge the crab was illegal, bought the confiscated seafood back at auction.)
King crab is the steak of crab. Coveted for its massive legs, which can be up to an inch and a half thick and 3 feet long, it’s caught predominantly in the waters off Alaska and Russia. As illustrated in the television series Deadliest Catch, many fishermen are willing to brave extreme risks for the lucrative haul. It’s featured at seafood grocery counters, casino buffets, and on the menu at Red Lobster. Concerned consumers might note that imported king crab gets an “avoid” on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. As the program puts it, “Far East king crab populations are at critically low levels, a situation made worse by regular overfishing and illegal fishing.” Nevertheless, Americans eat 15 million pounds of imported king crab a year. Not all of that comes from responsible stewards of the ocean, and it’s often impossible to tell the difference.
“It looks the same, tastes the same,” says Jake Jacobsen, the director of Inter-Cooperative Exchange, Alaska’s largest crab cooperative. “You can put any kind of label you want on a box.” That’s particularly infuriating for Jacobsen because Russian crab competes directly with Alaskan crab. “We’re all about trying to do the right thing in a good, environmentally stable way, and we can do that a lot better if we’re making good money,” he says. With the illegal trade undercutting their prices, Alaskan crabbers have lost out on at least $560 million in the last decade, according to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a trade group.
In the Russian Far East, illegal crab fishing is colloquially divided into two categories: “gray” and “black.” The gray fleet is legitimate on paper: vessels registered in Russia, with fishing rights and properly stamped paperwork, that nevertheless overharvest. The black fleet operates entirely off-book. These vessels are typically registered in Cambodia or Sierra Leone but crewed by Russians. The boats deliver their catch to Japan or South Korea—crab’s biggest markets and export centers—where indifferent officials tend to turn a blind eye.
In recent years, the Russian government has tried cracking down on the illegal trade in crab, ramping up enforcement and requiring more documentation. The statistics show that’s working—to a point. In the mid-2000s, the Russian black market take for crab, and particularly king crab, exceeded the legal one by a factor of three or four, according to an analysis by Alaskan seafood consulting firm McDowell Group. In 2013 that had dropped to just twice the legal harvest, although the black market portion still exceeded the entire American harvest. Getting behind these numbers on the docks in the Russian Far East presents its own challenges. The crab business has a formidable reputation. Although some insist the “crab mafia” is a thing of the past, those who are willing to talk about the industry at all still do so with anxiety. “Coming to Russia and asking about illegal crab,” one local warns me, “is like going to Colombia and asking about cocaine.” Another, a fisherman who asked that his name not be used to protect his safety, is even more blunt. “This is a very dangerous topic,” he says. “It’s left some people without their heads. You should have at least two or three bodyguards, and even they may not help you.”
Primarily known as a shipping hub for secondhand Japanese cars, the port city of Vladivostok sits just 50 miles north of Russia’s border with North Korea. It’s also a major hub for crab. The city’s main attraction is its long, hook-shaped harbor, home to the impressive Pacific Fleet. A face-lift for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit brought Vladivostok two brand-new billion-dollar suspension bridges, one of which connects to an island of just 5,000 people (Russia’s equivalent to the “bridge to nowhere”), but beneath these feats of engineering, the city is mostly crumbling Soviet-era buildings and smoke-belching buses cast off by wealthier Asian neighbors.
In a brick office building downtown just off Vladivostok’s main street, a small laminated placard with the logo of the Far East Crab Catchers Association marks the office of Alexander Duplyakov. He’s the president of the recently formed trade group, which represents 13 of the region’s 60-odd crab companies, or by his calculations roughly a quarter of the total harvest in the Far East.
Duplyakov is a tall, blond man who wears his long-sleeve polo shirts buttoned up to the collar. A lawyer by training, he got involved in fisheries after stints in the logging industry and government—along with fishing, arguably the region’s most corrupt sectors. “Perception of the fishing industry in general, and the crab industry in particular, is that it’s criminal,” he says. He insists that view is out of date.
In the early 2000s there were several high-profile crimes linked to the industry, including the gunning down of a provincial governor, Valentin Tsvetkov, in the streets of Moscow and the firebombing of a border patrol official’s house. By the mid-2000s fishermen were taking five times their allocated harvest, and people started talking openly about a crab mafia. Kirill Marenin, a Russian journalist who moonlights as a crab advocate, even started a website, stopcrabmafia.ru, that chronicles the darker side of Russian fisheries, from crews getting arrested to the tangled web of companies that participate. Recently he covered a court’s dismissal of a poaching case involving 87 tons of crab seized by the Russian government.
Convictions or not, the industry has cleaned up its act, Duplyakov says. He points to the existence of his association as proof: What kind of self-respecting gangsters have lobbyists? He adds that he’s considering pursuing certification through the Portland (Ore.) office of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. Certification is increasingly valuable as shoppers at Whole Foods and other grocers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for assurances that the fish on their plates isn’t endangering the species. But Duplyakov says it’s not just about the markup; it’s about making sure that Russian crab fishermen have jobs 20 years from now.
To put a face to those fishermen, he introduces me to Vladimir Rekasov, the head of Sigma Marin Tekhnolodzhi (Sigma Marine Technology), one of the association’s members. Sigma’s unmarked offices are on the second floor of a high-rise in a neighborhood called Pervaya Rechka (First River), far removed from the center of town. Inside the sparsely decorated office, Sigma’s export sales manager shoves a brochure into my hands. It touts Sigma as “The Russian Fishing Company: Wild catch in ecological fishing grounds,” before going on to boast that it’s a “large, rapidly developing” company with access to a “massive supply” of product.
Sigma and the other association members are trying to position themselves as the Union Pacific of crab, squeezing smaller operators out of the market and in the process doing away with institutional malfeasance. Rekasov is a burly man with a shaved head who looks uncomfortable in a button-down and, for that matter, in an office. He sits behind a huge, polished wooden desk, adorned with sea paraphernalia and flanked by his deputy, an unsmiling man in an ill-fitting black suit. “The bad times in our country are over,” Rekasov says. “We’ve learned from those times, and things are changing.”
Sigma allegedly contributed to those bad times. According to Russian newspaper reports, one of the company’s main crab vessels, the Shantar-1, was caught in 2007 with 80,000 pounds of undocumented crab. In 2012 the government put Shantar-1 on a list of vessels suspected of “filing false information on catches, under-reporting catch volumes, and systematically concealing catches.” Rekasov did not comment on these allegations. Aside from some bad press, though, there’s no proof of wrongdoing, or record of fines, penalties, or suspensions.
As he insists that crab poaching has diminished, Rekasov dismisses the notion that it’s a problem worth worrying about. “Some people might say that poaching destroys, that they take too much crab,” he says. “If the government won’t talk about it, then it’s Greenpeace. Greenpeace says that all major sea species are headed for collapse in 2020. Then after that, everything will die. If they stop talking like that, they stop talking about the ice melting, no one will give them money. Legal or illegal, in the store the label doesn’t say one way or another. A normal person just eats it and becomes healthy and fat.”
Duplyakov chimes in. “Instead of dealing with the real poachers, they harass legal companies,” he says. And by real poachers, he means the black fleet.
A thousand miles north of Vladivostok on the Bering Sea, the port city of Petropavlovsk is home to an armada of confiscated pirate ships. Petropavlovsk’s main harbor is in what passes for downtown, a stretch of alternately garish and decrepit buildings strung along the single road that anchors the entire city. At first glance the harbor looks busy, with a couple dozen boats tied up in it, most of them more than a hundred feet long. On closer examination, though, it’s clear the vessels have been mothballed; their decks are covered in thick blankets of snow, and there’s no country’s name lettered on their sterns.
Vladimir Gonchar’s office overlooks the harbor. He’s the general director of the fishing company Polluks, another member of the association that claims its crabbing is all legit. In a dying city full of confiscated vessels, he’s doing well. When I call to set up a meeting, he offers to send a car—a black chauffeured Lexus SUV. His office is well-appointed: leather couches, mahogany tables, certificates and awards on the walls, and in the place most people reserve for pictures of their children, a small black-and-white photograph of President Vladimir Putin.
Gonchar frowns as he looks out the window at the frozen fleet. “We can’t live just for today,” he says. “We have to think about our children, grandchildren. That can only happen when you have a sustainable fishery and don’t just think about this year. If that happens, we won’t have anything to fish in the future.” It’s a compelling sentiment, but Gonchar’s own children aren’t destined for a future in the fisheries. His daughter is studying fashion design in Los Angeles, “but she’s transferring to London, because the level is higher.”
The other problem with poaching, Gonchar says, is that it pushes down prices for fishermen such as himself, who play by the rules. That’s why, he says, his company supports legislative changes designed to stop gray fishing, including limiting the number of days a vessel can spend on the grounds.
We chat for a bit, and then Gonchar buzzes in a balding man in a considerably less expensive suit. “Our technical director, Alexander [Vasilyev],” he explains. “He will take you to the boat.”
The Sea Wind is an old Alaskan crabber built in the 1970s and purchased by Polluks during an era of joint-venture fishing with the Americans in the early ’90s. The potbellied first mate meets us at the end of the gangplank and shows us up to the wheelhouse. A jade plant wrapped in South Korean and American greenbacks sits in front of the captain’s chair. “The more it grows, the more money we will make,” he explains.
On a brief tour of the deck, a growing entourage of curious crew members jockeys to demonstrate the Russian method of setting crab pots. Whereas Alaska crab pots are square and launched overboard individually, Russian ones are conical and are slid off an open stern. Next, we head to the captain’s quarters for coffee. “There’s cognac in the bench if you’d like some,” the captain, Anatoly, offers, with a wink. Unlike most of the crew, Anatoly (he only gave his first name) is from Kazakhstan and left home at 15. He landed in Petropavlovsk and has been fishing ever since. He got into crabbing in the early ’90s because salaries were double or triple what you could make on other types of fishing vessels. Every time the conversation veers toward a discussion of the seedier side of the crab industry, Vasilyev steers it back. It’s hard to tell if he simply doesn’t want to leave a bad impression, or if he’s trying to keep the captain from disclosing potentially damaging information. Vasilyev drives me back to my hotel. As we curve along the edge of the water, shoreline piled high with sea ice, I ask about his past. It turns out he used to be an engineer aboard one of the company’s other vessels, the Odessey-1. So he’s a lifer. Is his family also involved in fishing? “No,” he says. “And I hope they never will be. I wouldn’t wish this industry on anyone.”
In the Russian Far East, seized pirate ships have a way of going to sea once again. Firing at them from time to time, along with escorting them into port, “is the equivalent of a bureaucrat having a stack of papers on his desk to show he’s doing something,” says one industry observer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about his safety.
The Iskander, for one, did not end up in Petropavlovsk. Before the shootout with the border patrol last fall, it had been busted at least once before under one of its former names, Status. In 2009, according to court documents, the Status captain was fined $5,000 for an unauthorized border crossing. There’s no record of what became of the vessel after November 2013, but Marenin, the stopcrabmafia publisher, e-mailed this news recently: It turns out “during the chase, the crew had time to get rid of the catch. As a result there is no evidence of the poaching, or basis for a criminal case.” The Iskander was let go.
Reporting for this story was funded by a Middlebury College Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.