OZERPAKH, Russia – A series of stakes several hundred meters long jut out of the endless estuary of the Amur on Russia’s Pacific coast, resembling the bare spine of a giant fish.
It’s a piece of commercial fishing infrastructure that reminds the people who still live here that the abundance of nature – in this case, millions of pals and pink salmon – is one of the few well-connected.
“It’s as if they have to mercilessly exterminate this wealth,” says 65-year-old Galina Sladkovskaya, waiting in vain for a fish to bite on a dike about 20 miles upriver. “You just need money and nothing else. You don̵
Along the Amur, one of Asia’s largest waterways, Russians feel cheated, lied to and ignored. The wild salmon fishery, which they once took for granted, was gone because Moscow made huge concessions to companies that had stretched huge nets across the estuary.
The anger of the people over their depleted fish stocks is so widespread that it is a driving force behind the protests against the Kremlin that have rocked the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk on the Amur since early July.
“This was a gesture by people who really wanted to be heard,” said Daniil Yermilov, a political adviser from Khabarovsk, of the protests. “People wanted to live the way they used to live so that they could catch fish again.”
The story of the Amur’s disappearing salmon also sheds broader light on why popular support for President Vladimir V. Putin has fallen close to the lowest point in his 20-year rule.
The Russians’ departure from Putin is less about abstract concepts of freedom and geopolitics than about the concrete cases of poverty and injustice they see in their daily lives – and the feeling that the country’s elite neither know nor care about their struggles she cares.
On a dirt road near the mouth of the Amur, a green truck splashed past before the fisherman Leonid gave the all-clear. Two boys, his sons, pushed their way out of their hiding place in the reeds, dragging a sack of glittering salmon.
“We are being forced to become poachers,” he said, cursing and refusing to give his last name because he was breaking the law. “What does Putin think?”
Residents say there is virtually no way for them to catch legally enough to eat of the few fish that remain amid increasingly stringent regulations on recreational and indigenous fishing.
The planks tied to the roof of Leonid’s aging blue hatchback were supposed to provide an alibi – he was collecting wood waste. Its rear window bore the slogan of the political awakening of the Khabarovsk region in the summer: “I am / we are Sergei Furgal.”
Sergei I. Furgal, a former scrap dealer, ran for governor of the sprawling Khabarovsk region in 2018, beating the incumbent, an ally of the Kremlin, in a rare surprise. He gained popularity with populist movements unusual in Russia’s top-down system of government: he lowered his salary, improved school lunches and did frequent listening tours, skipped the tie and posted copiously on Instagram.
At this point in time, the Amur’s fish crisis was brewing. The federal authorities had granted extensive salmon fishing rights to companies that installed huge stationary networks in the estuary and at the estuary.
In the fall, the legions of migrating salmon made it hundreds of kilometers upriver to Khabarovsk, filling the apartment fridges with smoked fish and cheap salmon roe – a New Year’s Eve staple that Russians call red caviar – sold by the kilogram.
The catch was 64,000 tons in 2016, but then dropped sharply to 21,500 tons in 2018, according to the World Wildlife Federation. And only a few salmon reached Khabarovsk or the spawning grounds on the tributaries of the Amur.
“The people here can’t catch enough to get on the table right now, while commercial fishermen are making huge profits,” Furgal said shortly after taking office. “We will try to change this situation.”
He called for new restrictions on commercial fishing, some of which have been introduced, but salmon have remained scarce. Then, early last month, a SWAT team from Moscow pulled Mr. Furgal out of his black SUV and took him back to the capital on the eight-hour flight.
Fifteen years ago he was accused of murder, but residents of Khabarovsk saw a bare Kremlin attempt to remove a loner governor who was more loyal to his constituents than Putin was. Two days later, tens of thousands took to the streets in the largest protests that Russia’s regions had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The protests, now in the second month, are fueled by regional pride, economic frustration and weariness with Putin. But her invigorating emotion, as demonstrated by dozen of interviews in the region, was a sense of injustice, as embodied by the fish crisis: salmon had been part of life here for generations, and now Moscow had taken it away and offered nothing in return.
“Putin only thinks of war and his pockets,” said Andrei Peters, 53, a small business owner in the impoverished village of Takhta on the Lower Amur. “Nobody thinks about people.”
In the fighting fishing village of a few hundred people with no regular internet or road connection to the outside world, someone had printed black and white furgal posters on normal sheets of paper and attached them to the wooden power poles. With their now ex-governor behind bars, residents said they feared they had lost the only person in power who heard their concerns.
Indeed, the few officials in the region who agreed to question inquiries after Mr Furgal’s arrest either rejected the fish-related anger of their constituents or shifted the blame away from the Kremlin. In the indigenous community of Sikachi-Alyan, an hour’s drive outside of Khabarovsk, the village director Nina Druzhinina declared: “America is responsible for all of our sins.”
“The CIA has deployed its services everywhere and its spy network is likely to be highly developed,” said Ms. Druzhinina. Commercial fishermen were able to exploit the Amur River due to the American-inspired legal law of post-Soviet Russia.
In the regional parliament, spokeswoman Irina Zikunova said that many residents of Khabarovsk “are guided by impulses, emotions, feelings” rather than facts. She rejected the notion, practically widely heard in interviews with Amur residents, that officials in Moscow had designed fisheries regulations for the benefit of well-connected business people.
“In reality, this is a made-up problem,” she said.
Aleksandr Pozdnyakov, one of the Amur’s most important fishing magnates, is chauffeured in a black Mercedes Maybach in Khabarovsk. In an interview in his tastefully darkened office, he admitted that the Amur fishery is in crisis. But he said the problem is overfishing by local residents who preferred to “pay nothing and do nothing while catching as much as they want”.
Mister Furgal, the governor of Khabarovsk who was arrested last month, made matters worse, he said, said “like he’s doing anything for the people” and told the public they had a right to the salmon in the Amur.
“I will tell you one thing,” said Mr Pozdnyakov of the tens of thousands who protested in support of Mr Furgal. “I’m confident that practically 99 percent of those who go out are idlers who don’t want to do anything. ”
Experts say the notion that local poaching is part of the problem is true. Olga Cheblukova, who coordinates the World Wildlife Fund’s Amur River studies, said the environmental group’s researchers saw hundreds of dead salmon scattered near their spawning grounds, cut their bellies open and removed their roe.
The fundamental problem, she said, is poor federal oversight that failed to see a natural decline in wild salmon populations after the big catch in 2016. In the years that followed, regulators granted catch quotas in excess of the actual migrant population and allowed salmon runs to be virtually wiped out before they could reproduce.
In the fall of 2018, WWF researchers counted an average of about 0.1 chum salmon per 1,000 square feet of river in their spawning areas, compared to a norm of about 50.
For the residents of Khabarovsk, this failure of governance means more expensive fish – a parable for all of Russia, where official mismanagement and corruption often lead to bad roads, crumbling hospitals and polluted wilderness.
The protests in Khabarovsk show how easily public anger over these failures can boil over – just like with Evgeny Kamyshev, 32, a demonstrator who blamed the Kremlin for the salmon shortage.
“The fish is rotting off the head,” he said.
Oleg Matsnev contributed from Moscow.