Saturday, 14 April 2012

Russia's arctic future- Whitefish from white rivers

Andrey hauls up a 'Shuka' (Russian for pike).

I’ve driven four hours across frozen lakes and tundra in a huge wheeled all terrain vehicle called a ‘Trackle.’ I’m standing on the snow covered ice of a river in Russia's far northern Yamalo-Nenets region. With me is Andrey Ryazanovich. He’s been pike fishing since he was a boy. From holes in the ice of the river stand little red flags. Most are leant over to one side, indicating the baited hooks suspended in the water beneath have been bitten. Starting with the first one, Andrey pulls up the line to reveal a large pike, thrashing about in the winter air. Each one goes into a trailer on the back of his snowmobile, ready for the pot later.

In the end we catch upwards of ten pike, each between 3 and 6 kilogrammes in weight. As Andrey comments, "80% of the local villagers come fishing. It's a valuable supplement to our diet and a wonderful way to enjoy the countryside here." 

Racks of whitefish salted and drying. They will stay here for five days before being packed into cans.

Four hours drive back into the regional capital, Salekhard, I see that fish isn't just for personal consumption here. The local fish factory processes whitefish, humpback whitefish, muksun (lots of different types of whitefish) peled, ide, and more. They are all northern freshwater fish. An institute in the Siberian city of Tyumen, hundreds of kilometres upstream and to the south (most of the rivers across the northern half of Russia flow south to north, emptying into the seas around the Arctic ocean) gives out quotas each year for the amount of fish that can be caught and processed. This year the total quota was 9000 tonnes of which this plant processes 2500 tonnes. Private fishermen do the catching then sell their fish to the plant.  

Most of the staff at the Salekhard fish plant came from its soviet predecessor.

Like so many enterprises in Russia these days, this plant is descended from a soviet one. That was shut down in the nineties and this one opened in 2000, taking most of its staff from the old plant. Also like so many more modern Russian industrial enterprises it couldn't have happened without help from the state. The french, german and scandinavian machinery here and the modern quality standards were beyond reach until government money poured in. For a kick start from soviet times it seems government money really was needed, but now the plant is doing well on its own. When I asked the plant's technical director, Tamara Romanova, if they sold their goods internationally she replied that, "we'd love to, but we haven't even got enough stock to supply the domestic market. We know our fish are very popular all over the place, but we'll need more fish and more capacity to supply them abroad."   

Tamara Romanova, who studied in a fish institute and has worked with them all her life. 

Some of the fish are covered in flour which is then toasted to make a breadcrumb type coating. Most fish are sold in various vegetable oils with or without sauces.

The Salekhard plant processes thousands of tonnes of  fish, based on variable annual quotas.

Both the local fish industry and the local government want to increase production of canned and processed fish from what is still a very unpolluted environment. They've caught on to that here too, Tamara telling me, "we don't add any chemicals to our fish and we won't in the future unless we absolutely have to. We know the sales potential of a natural product and we start off with one anyway." With growing industry in the region, and pressure to increase quotas its too soon to say if pollution and overfishing could become a problem. But for now fish holds pride of place with reindeer as arctic flavour of the month, every month.  

Andrey Ryazanovich with his prize pike of the day. But will it become even more hefty when he tells the story to his friends? Well I suppose it wasn't the one that got away, but of course he told me about the 30kg one that did.  

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