Russia’s very own Venice

“The Venice of the Volga” is how locals describe the lower Astrakhan region – where Europe’s longest water course splits into a fan of more than 250 channels that feed into the Caspian Sea.

The sprawling tapestry of islands of the Volga Delta is home to a vast and varied wildlife population. The area has been one of Russia's most famous fishing spots and an ideal playground for tourists.

“I’ve been coming here for six years. The fish and nature is fantastic and there’re nothing like the adrenaline rush of a really big catch,” says fishing tourist Oleg Chernenko.

People who come here from all across the country and abroad have all paid to be here. Last year their numbers were thought to be half a million, meaning it has become big business in the region.

Those involved in the industry are not surprised by its success.

“Any kind of fish that exists in Russia – you can catch here,” assures the General Manager of the fishing resort Anatoly Popaev. “Of course we’ve some restrictions as to where and what you can fish, but we’re far more relaxed than most places.”

Fish are not only caught here, but they are also farmed. Astrakhan has held the title of Russia’s fish farm for more than 400 years. Everywhere you go here you see people indulging in the region’s favourite pastime.

However, they are no longer fishing for the Volga’s most famous inhabitant – the beluga sturgeon.

In a bid to counter illegal poaching, a complete ban on sturgeon fishing was introduced in 2003. Only farmed fishing in special centres is now permitted.

“Our goal is to maintain and replenish the Volga’s sturgeon population. We produce a limited amount of caviar for sale, but our main job is artificial reproduction. Last year we produced about 40 tons of fertilized caviar,” boasts the head of beluga farm Rafael Batulin.

About 90% of all caviar available in Russia is thought to be poached. It is a big business worth some $US 39 million a year.

Since 1995, the centre has been developing their methods of scientific reproduction and the means of extracting caviar without killing the fish.

Each year they release lots of young sturgeon, fitted with an electronic chip, into the Volga.

However, the numbers of industrially reared fish are still not enough to repair the damage caused by poaching.

Despite continual federal efforts to revive it, Russia’s fishing industry remains outdated and uncompetitive. The equipment and methods of fishing in Volga have not changed for generations.

“Our income is entirely reliant on how much fish we catch. My men can take home 40% of whatever the collective earns. That usually means a monthly wage of about $120. The rest of the money goes back into the collective. It’s a hard life,” grumbles fisherman Vasiliy Seseranov.

Fishermen say that each year it is becoming increasingly difficult to get a good a catch. The equipment they are using is outdated and desperately in need of repair and, more importantly, the fish stocks in these waters are decreasing. It’s a big problem, and, in a region where fishing is its heritage and its lifeblood, it is one that cannot be ignored.