Dmitry Lisitsyn

Saving Sakhalin’s Tym River From Poachers

Saving Sakhalin’s Tym River From Poachers

Translated from “How Sakhalin entrepreneurs saved the Tym River from poachers,” a story by Inessa Dotsenko, Sakhalin Oblast, originally published 21 August 2020 in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Far Eastern Economics, No. 185 (8239)

Several residents of a village on northeastern Sakhalin Island managed the impossible: they dealt with poaching in a place where it had flourished for a long time with tremendous illegal profits for some and destruction of the region’s ecosystem.

This past summer, pink salmon swam upstream into the Tym River’s tributaries. This sounds relatively innocuous, given that the Tym is an abundant river in spawning terms, second in importance on Sakhalin after the Poronaya River. The name itself stems from the indigenous Nivkh word tymy, meaning “holes on the bottom,” where fish deposit their eggs.

But in recent years, after poachers stripped the river of every last salmon, not allowing a single fish to reach the headwaters, there could be no talk of spawning in an empty river. Activist environmentalists worked together with law enforcement to double down on protecting the Tym, but criminal cases against illegal fish harvesters kept falling apart, while the remaining pink salmon attempting to swim upriver kept being exterminated, as in the past.

Volunteer Oleg Ryazantzev and Dmitry Lisitsyn, Executive Director of the NGO Sakhalin Environment Watch, on an anti-poaching raid on the Tym River, Sakhalin Island. (PC: Dmitry Lisitsyn)

Yet this August, explained Dmitry Lisitsyn, Executive Director of the NGO Sakhalin Environment Watch, “it was completely quiet and deserted, even in the Nivkh village of Chir-Unvd, a place that is usually overflowing with poachers at this time of year. Many pink salmon were swimming upriver.”

Residents of Sakhalin will understand. This is not just unusual; it’s incomprehensible. Mind you, Lisitsyn did say that the activists noted two modest attempts at illegal fishing on the most remote parts of the river. In each case, the “fishermen” hastily departed upon spotting the unfamiliar boat. And this happened in a place where fearless poachers generally felt themselves quite at home!

River checkpoints

No, fish poachers had not suddenly searched their hearts. It is simpler than that. This year, male residents of the town of Nogliki, located on the banks of the Tym River, got involved. Oleg Putintsev, owner of a transport business, joined with a group of like-minded people and purchased several light boats with powerful hydro-jet motors, a few UAZ Patriot off-road vehicles, and fully-equipped camper trucks and then invited 30 retired special forces soldiers to join them. In the end, they established five checkpoints, two land-based mobile vehicle units, and several river-based patrols. Another team patrols aboard a cruiser in Nyisky Bay, where the Tym River empties, and two more teams fight poachers on the Nabil River and in Nabilsky Bay. Vehicle teams also patrol the Dagi and Val Rivers.

Dmitry Lisitsyn is convinced that this help arrived just in the nick of time.

“There was only a single inspector – the chief of the Nogliki Fisheries Inspection department – working in this entire enormous region in 2020 at the height of the salmon runs,” the environmentalist reported. “And it wasn’t safe for him to even travel to the river alone. Two other Nogliki inspectors are in prison awaiting their day in court under accusations of corruption and ‘running protection’ for poachers.”

When asked why he felt the need to get personally involved, Putintsev bristled.

Poachers target the more lucrative roe and leave thousands of rotting salmon bodies behind. Over 2,000 pounds of salmon roe were seized on this raid of a poacher’s camp on Sakhalin’s Pilngi River in 2014. (PC: SEW)

“But we live here in Nogliki and are not planning to leave anytime soon! “ he answered. “What can you do here? Hunt and fish. And I’m a fisherman. I can see for myself what’s going on. There was a time when schools of salmon would swim 150 km upstream from the mouth of the river just to spawn. It was an incredible sight, and we were amazed by it every year. But now? Poacher after poacher, net upon net. People are living for a day. Slice open the fish, take the caviar, sell it. They earn a bit of money for the moment. And they are satisfied. But what will happen later, when the salmon are gone? Nobody is thinking about that. There are lots of examples of this. On southwestern Sakhalin, there are no more fish in the Poronai River after being stripped. There are only a few fish left in Aniva Bay. Without protection, spawning grounds in rivers and other waterbodies will be empty. I talked with other guys about this, and we decided to protect the Tym ourselves. Indigenous minority residents shared our view – that was good. We were very lucky that law enforcement shared it as well. Otherwise, it would have been a failure. Police officers often join our mobile patrols.”

Teaming up with government forces

2012 poaching raid on the Tym River. (PC: SEW)

“Through his actions, Oleg Putintsev is helping to stop poaching,” said Samir Kuliev, director of the Sakhalin-Kurile Island branch of the Russian Federal Fishing Agency. “When they encounter illegal activity, their hired workers report it to law enforcement agencies.”

They also remove illegal nets, verify that nets used by indigenous people have been properly marked, and check to see that harvests are documented in the required registries. They do not make arrests, of course; that is law enforcement work. But with the help of these volunteers, law enforcement has already issued nine citations. In most cases, citations are unnecessary – who wants to prove their right to fish illegally to a former special forces volunteer?

Dmitry Lisitsyn, Executive Director of the NGO Sakhalin Environment Watch, removes an illegal fishing net on the Tym River, Sakhalin Island. (PC: Dmitry Lisitsyn)

Head of the Sakhalin Fisheries Agency, Ivan Radchenko said, “For the first time in 17 years, the Tym River experienced strong masu salmon returns, and now we are seeing pink salmon. The border guard agency is actively fighting marine poaching. But Sakhalin’s greatest challenge is illegal Pacific salmon harvesting in river spawning grounds.” He continued, “The federal Fisheries Agency is responsible for stopping poaching in rivers. But there are thousands of spawning rivers on Sakhalin Island, and their inspectors, sometimes allocated just two people to a district, are unfortunately simply unable to patrol them.

South of the Tym River and town of Nokliki, Sakhalin’s Vostochny Refuge is protected for pink and other salmon species. (PC: SEW)

Whose job is it?

What makes the Nogliki story unique is that neither Oleg Putintsev nor his friends have any connection to commercial fishing. It’s relatively common in the Far East for commercial fishing companies to protect their river fishing territory. For example, in 2016 the Bolshaya River Association was created on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Commercial fishing companies united forces on the western side of the peninsula to fight illegal fishing in the Bolshaya and Opala river basins – areas facing the greatest poaching pressure. Community inspectors work together with the federal Fisheries Agency, border guards, and law enforcement. In the last ten days of August, they conducted 265 patrols and 499 spot inspections. Over the last four years, they have managed to ensure salmon escapement in Kamchatka at levels not seen for a very long time.

Sakhalin’s commercial fishing companies also protect spawning rivers. But not all and not everywhere. And these initiatives are voluntary where they do occur. It has not been possible to make them mandatory.

“The Sakhalin Oblast government has repeatedly appealed to the federal Fisheries Agency, pointing to the necessity of legally required river protection, not only by government agencies, but also by users of fishing grounds. To date, these requests have gone unapproved,” said Ivan Radchenko briefly.

Fishing vessel off the coast of Sakhalin Island. (PC: SEW)
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