Caviar – Black Gold

13’ 45”

Publicity:

Once, peasants consumed it to enhance their fertility. Then the nobility discovered it had the “taste of heaven”. Soon the richest people on earth coveted it as a status symbol. Next, the Russian mafia realised the profits it could yield. And pretty soon it may disappear forever.

 


Foreign Correspondent’s Moscow correspondent Emma Griffiths goes hunting in the Caspian Sea for the true story of caviar. She finds a strange and terrible story of a pre-historic fish and their eggs.


Woman in restaurant eating caviar

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GRIFFITHS:  At upwards of around It’s no wonder that in Moscow caviar is called “the Tsar’s dish”.

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WOMAN:  It’s so tasty, it’s popping in your mouth. It’s

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Yummy. Yummy, is it. Yummy.

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Windblown Kazakhstan village

GRIFFITHS:  Out on the backblocks of Kazakhstan, in fishing villages beside the Caspian Sea, the best caviar – beluga – is eaten by the kilo.

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Fishermen haul in nets

 

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GRIFFITHS:  Caviar is cut from the belly of the sturgeon fish – a curious creature that’s survived since the time of the dinosaurs -- and looks it.

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But the worldwide lust for caviar has brought Caspian sturgeon to the brink of extinction. Over-fishing, poaching, smuggling and corruption have led to this: a miserable morning’s haul of minnows. Beluga sturgeon can grow to six metres long and a thousand kilos.

PHAEDRA:   If there’s a good scheme of management and protection where the animals are actually allowed to pass up to

01:25

Phaedra and Griffiths in car

where they spawn and then the habitat is available to them, it could be a huge help to the population.

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GRIFFITHS:  American fisheries scientist, Phaedra Doukakis, is setting up a research project to help preserve one of their last viable spawning grounds – Kazakhstan’s Ural River.

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PHAEDRA:  They don’t reproduce until very late in age and they don’t reproduce often.

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Dan and Phaedra laying receivers

GRIFFITHS:  She and Dan Ericksen are laying acoustic receivers to help them track sturgeon that they plan to tag during this year’s spawning season. But they’re finding a lot of official resistance. Research in the past has led to international bans on the export of caviar, with a lot of people losing money.

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PHAEDRA: I think it’s becoming more challenging to do science here.

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Phaedra. Super:
Phaedra Doukakis
Pew Institute for Ocean Science

We faced a number of difficulties including getting our gear into the country successfully, getting cooperation from the folks that we’re working with.

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Fishermen’s faces

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GRIFFITHS:  Lots of money IS made from caviar, but not much by the men who do the hard work on the Ural River.

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Soviet-era co-operatives, quotas and price controls conspire to ensure profits from diminishing stocks work their way up the official food chain.

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Griffiths shares meal with Uzakbai and family

UZAKBAI:   It’s certainly hard to get it at the moment. But this is the best caviar – our caviar is the best.

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GRIFFITHS:   Ironically, fishermen like Uzakbai Sadykov grew up being force-fed one of the world’s most expensive luxuries because, his mother said, it was good for him.

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Girl spits out caviar

And like anything that’s good for you it can take some getting used to. The delicacy has other rumoured attributes – it’s supposed to reduce the effects of alcohol and put you in the mood for love.

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Uzakbai. Super:
Uzakbai Sadykov
Fisherman

UZAKBAI:  I had a friend, a father of twelve, and he used to say: “I always eat caviar in the daytime and I eat sturgeon broth before I go to sleep so tomorrow I will have another son!”

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Griffiths at table with Uzakbai and family

GRIFFITHS:   Everyone’s frankly astonished to learn what people in the west will pay for their little treat.

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UZAKBAI:  Oh, it is too expensive, I don’t know, it is too expensive. How can they eat it then?

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Uzakbai

I feel very bad about that, oooh, three thousand for a kilo. It’s possible to buy an old car for this money.

04:50

Sturgeon being lifted into cannery

GRIFFITHS:  By law, caviar is strictly controlled, with quotas set by the UN agency that governs trade in endangered species. That way what’s processed and exported can be limited to ensure the industry remains sustainable. In theory.

05:01

Hidden camera tape. Visit to market

In practice, the illegal trade may be twelve times bigger than the legitimate one.  We visit a market in the nearby city of Atyrau with a hidden camera.

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WOMAN:   If the cops see us – it will be a real fuck up.

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GRIFFITHS:  A whispered request -- and a whole kilo of caviar is offered. This is just the cottage-industry end of the business.

WOMAN:  Taste it!

GRIFFITHS:  I don’t know…

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PHAEDRA:  About 25 per cent of the time what you think you’re getting – you’re not getting.

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Phaedra. Super:
Phaedra Doukakis
Pew Institute for Ocean Science

Sometimes you’re getting endangered species, sometimes you’re getting lower quality caviar.

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Return to hidden camera at market

GRIFFITHS:  The tighter the quotas, the bigger the black-market profits.

06:05

Guzikov. Super: Lev Guzikov
Journalist

GUZIKOV:  This is a very serious and complicated web and there are different channels to export caviar and fish.

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Packing caviar into tins

GRIFFITHS:   There are occasional, highly-visible police raids – but the black market is a sophisticated, multi-million dollar shadow industry controlled by an international mafia that routinely corrupts officials.

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GUZIKOV: Let us take the minimum: one beluga produces fifty or more kilos of raw caviar.

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Guzikov

That makes, well,  fifty kilos costs about $US30,000. You can get fifty thousand $US50,000 from one lucky beluga catch.

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Water police chopper

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GRIFFITHS:  The water police are one of half a dozen competing agencies charged with stopping the poachers.  They promise to show us some dedicated law enforcement.

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Guzikov in chopper

But journalist, Lev Guzikov, lets us in on what’s an open secret around here.

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GUZIKOV:  It is our law enforcement structures that are the primary poachers because they get the lion’s share of the profits.

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Dezhanzakov alights from chopper

GRIFFITHS:  The water police, however, portray themselves in something of an heroic mould – engaged in a battle where technology and resources often favour the bad guys.

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Dezhanzakov. Super:
Serek Dezhanzakov
Deputy Chief of Water Police

DEZHANZAKOV:  We work in the open sea. There are dangers sometimes. Last year we detained some boats from Russia and machine guns and grenades were confiscated.

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Water police on patrol

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GRIFFITHS:  We set out on the Caspian Sea for a high-octane pursuit. Highly-co-ordinated commando tactics, ultimately successful.

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Water police give chase

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GRIFFITHS:  It’s been an impressive display -- but that’s all it is -- a display. A mock-up for the cameras.

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GUZIKOV: You were in the boat with one of the major poachers of our area.

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Guzikov. Super: Lev Guzikov
Journalist

Because practically every kid in the city knows that 70 percent of the poachers work “under the cover” of  either the Water Police or the Fish Inspection agency.

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GRIFFITHS:  It sounds like a caviar mafia to me.

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GUZIKOV:  Certainly. [English] Yes, of course.

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Dezhanzakov. Super:
Serek Dezhanzakov
Deputy Chief of Water Police

DEZHANZAKOV:  Really? No. There is no such phenomenon as the caviar mafia. There is no such thing in Kazakhstan. I’ve actually heard it from you for the first time. “Caviar mafia.” I wouldn’t say there are serious organised gangs around, we don’t have such gangs.

09:38

Water police in pursuit of poachers

GRIFFITHS:  On another day, the water police catch up with real villains.

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They turn out to be the coastguard officers doing a little poaching on the side.  This time there’s a real chase into the Ural River, and into a maze of back-channels torched by yet more poachers to confuse and slow-down pursuers. The chase ends when the fisheries patrol runs out of fuel.

10:07

Dan and Phaedra collecting receiver

It’s a bleak picture for researchers hoping to protect and preserve the age-old sturgeon fish.

Phaedra: Put a receiver in, take a receiver out.

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GRIFFITHS:  While we’ve been in Kazakhstan, Phaedra Doukakis’ research project has been shut down.

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She’s been given a lame excuse – something about fishing quotas.  But she has more than an inkling of what this is really about.

10:57


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PHAEDRA:  I think this has been a pretty closed system for a while, where people weren’t really allowed to work here.

GRIFFITHS:  How sensitive is it

11:06

Phaedra. Super:
Phaedra Doukakis
Pew Institute for Ocean Science

trying to get scientific information about sturgeon and why do you think it’s so sensitive?

PHAEDRA:   Very sensitive - considered state secrets, for sure.

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It’s a very lucrative industry. It’s not transparent, it never has been.

GRIFFITHS:  Four years of hard work has come to nothing.

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Dan and Phaedra walk

But what really breaks her heart is the thought a species could soon be wiped out – loved to death for its eggs.

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Phaedra

PHAEDRA:  It’s one of these things where it’s a luxury item. It is not necessary for anyone’s survival.

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So, you know, we could be driving a species towards extinction for something that’s completely unnecessary and just sort of a luxury.

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Fishing at sunrise

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GRIFFITHS:   The Caspian Sea has always been a source of great wealth for the people who live near it. They’ve struck oil here – and it seems the enormous riches that lie beneath it, now overshadow the abundance of life within it.

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GRIFFITHS:  Even if the sturgeon disappear entirely, vast fortunes will still be made. But none of it by those whose ancestry was built on these shores and who cannot imagine life without that unique, tasty, little morsel that has graced their tables for centuries.

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Uzakbai

UZAKBAI: God save us from this to happen. Never. God help us. No caviar... no sturgeon fish, no, no, no.

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PHAEDRA:   It would be tragic for there to be a life for these people without

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Phaedra

a huge part of their natural history, their cultural heritage, and it could happen.

13:00

Sturgeon in f/g, fisherman in b/g

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