Sakhalin© Mikhail Skopets

Vladimir Smirnov: Champion for Wild Salmon

Vladimir Smirnov: Champion for Wild Salmon

Passionate fisherman and conservationist working to protect wild salmon in Sakhalin.

Vladimir Smirnov
© Wild Salmon Center

Vladimir Smirnov is the kind of fisherman that gives us hope for the future of wild salmon in Russia. He is at the fore of the growing sustainable fisheries movement in the Russian Far East. Through his work as the President of Plavnik Fishing Company, as Chairman of the Smirnykhovsky Regional Fisheries Association, and as a founding member of the Sakhalin Salmon Initiative (SSI), Vladimir is a fisherman who cares about Russia’s wild salmon and strives to protect this invaluable resource for future generations. He has made a name for himself by taking the fight directly to poachers in his region. In late 2010, his company became one of the nineteen fishing companies that entered the full assessment phase of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification process. Because of Vladimir’s limitless passion to preserve the wild salmon and wild salmon ecosystems of Sakhalin Island, Wild Salmon Center recognizes Vladimir Smirnov as a Champion for Wild Salmon.

How did you get started fishing?

I started fishing for crab. Everyone says they want to conserve this resource, but in fact they do the opposite. This was particularly evident in the Russian crab fishery. The whole system is built on illegality and it is extremely difficult to change. So I switched to salmon fishing. I saw an opportunity to affect change positively, because the salmon fishing gear is passive and the salmon runs are abundant.

I bought a company and started to learn and create positive working conditions for myself and my employees. People started to relate to the wild salmon resource as their own and therefore care about its sustainability. We saw that conditions were ripening for a new relationship with wild salmon resources in Russia. We started fighting against illegal fishing. We were really the only ones at the time.

Shortly after, I learned about the Wild Salmon Center (WSC) and I realized that our goals were identical and that we could work together. That was a really critical time in the history of my fishery, as the government was planning on building hatcheries there. This was really dangerous.

People started to relate to the wild salmon resource as their own and therefore care about its sustainability. We saw that conditions were ripening for a new relationship with wild salmon resources in Russia.”
– Vladimir Smirnov

How did you stop hatcheries from being built around your fishery?

I was able to meet with the Vice-Governor (of the Sakhalin Oblast) at the time. I showed him photos of my operation and how it looked before I bought it. I told him that the salmon populations are abundant; therefore, hatcheries were not needed in this region. He picked up the phone and had my river removed from the list of hatchery sites and included in a list of rivers significant for preserving the gene pool and diversity of salmon populations.

I started to meet more regularly with WSC and then there was the Sakhalin Salmon Initiative conference in 2006. It was the first time I spoke in public.

What are some of the biggest threats to salmon on Sakhalin?

When we first arrived in the Smirnykhovsky region, illegal fishing was out of control. Poachers were very well organized. After they stripped females for red caviar, they would bury the carcasses in
the ground using tractors and then cover the hole so the police couldn’t find it. One time, a tractor ran over an old hole and fell in — all the fish had rotted away! I am sure the tractor driver will never forget that experience!

Pilngi River Poaching
A common and wasteful practice of poachers: female salmon are cut open, their eggs are removed, and the adult salmon, deemed of less value, are left to rot | © Sakhalin Environment Watch

We started our business carefully and methodically. We were able to nearly eliminate poaching in our region. I became a founding member of the Sakhalin Salmon Initiative Center. We have been able to do a lot in comparison to the other regions of Russia.

The federal authorities take us very seriously. They listen to us. Working with international organizations helps us a lot. Before decisions are made or something irrational is done, the Russian authorities think really hard. And they listen better.

Some people will always covet our rivers and salmon resource. And we will always need to be on guard. This is the situation now with the proposed in-river fishing parcels, which could lead to serious over exploitation of wild salmon runs in the region. Historically, there has never been in-river fishing on Sakhalin. Now the fisheries agencies are planning on creating sections for commercial harvest in the rivers. They should be left alone so that fish can reach their spawning grounds without being harassed.

What does the future of Sakhalin salmon fisheries look like?

I think the future looks very good, especially if the Russian authorities decide not to go ahead with allocating in-river fishing parcels and just keep the commercial fisheries along the coast line as currently arranged. Three regional pink salmon fisheries on Sakhalin have entered full MSC assessment. We hope our fishery is awarded an MSC certification in the near future. There is a lot of global interest in Sakhalin salmon, which, by the way, has the highest quality and best taste! We need to continue to fight against illegal fishing. We must continue to work hard on this and never surrender. We will continue to fight.

River in Russia's Sakhalin Region
River in Sakhalin | © Dagi mit Regenbogen
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