"Twenty years ago I remember lots of fish coming to this river," she told me, through a translator, on a crisp summer day, as we stood near her fish traps in a little tributary. Those traps were the end point for spawn-ready adults whose eggs and sperm would fuel the hatching and rearing operations of the hatchery. "A variety of species," Sakharovskaya said. "Now I don't see them."
The decline in the run of chinook, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, has been especially severe, she said. These are deep-bodied and silvery creatures with purplish dorsal markings, largest of all salmon species, and therefore sometimes known as king salmon. Once they came in great, regal herds. Nowadays the Malki hatchery releases 850,000 chinook fry (as well as a lesser number of sockeye) annually, but not many adults return. What stops them? Two kinds of illegal harvest: overcatching (perelov is the Russian word) by licensed companies that have catch quotas but exceed them with impunity, and poaching by individuals or small crews, mostly for caviar, at concealed spots along the river. The poaching problem throughout Kamchatka is catastrophic in scale, totaling at least 120 million pounds of salmon annually, much of it controlled by criminal syndicates. A hatchery director can't fix that problem, Sakharovskaya noted, and the regulatory authorities evidently don't have the resources or the resolve to do it. So only the luckiest and most elusive of chinook reach their destiny here along the Bystraya. "We can almost count them on fingers," she said.
But the Bolshaya drainage is only one of many river systems on the peninsula, and its hatchery fish aren't representative of Kamchatka wild salmon. Circumstances elsewhere are different; threats, opportunities, regulations, and even bureaucratic structures all change year by year. The whole situation is as complicated as a nested set of matryoshka dolls—Putin containing Gorbachev containing Brezhnev containing Stalin. On the Kol River, for instance, which also drains to the west coast, there is no hatchery, no streamside road, and (so far) no tragedy of depleted runs. What the Kol represents is superb habitat, scarcely touched, and abundant runs of wild salmon, including all six species: chinook, sockeye, chum, coho, pink, and masu. Last year, over seven million fish returned to spawn, filling the Kol so fully that in some stretches salmon were packed side to side like paving bricks. The Kol also carries another distinction. By a 2006 decree of the Kamchatka government, that river (along with another nearby stream) became part of the Kol-Kekhta Regional Experimental Salmon Reserve, the world's first whole-basin refuge established for the conservation of Pacific salmon.
On the north bank now sits the Kol River Biostation, a cluster of simple wooden buildings that serves as base for a binational research effort, its field operations led by Kirill Kuzishchin of Moscow State University and his American colleague, Jack Stanford of the University of Montana. Kuzishchin, Stanford, and their team are studying the dynamics of the Kol ecosystem. They hope to address several big questions, including: How important are salmon to the health of the entire river ecosystem?