A 2.6 GW hydro project built in the Soviet Union in the 1950s is partly to blame for the decline of sturgeon that has devastated the Russian caviar industry, according to a British wildlife conservation researcher.

By blocking the migration of the critically endangered fish up the Volga to their spawning grounds, the hydro facility has pushed them “to the brink of extinction,” writes Hannah Dickinson of the University of Sheffield, England, in an article timed to coincide with the FIFA World Cup hosted by Russia (The Conversation, 6/17).

One of the “Great Construction Projects of Communism”, the Volgograd project was authorized by Joseph Stalin in 1950 and its powerhouses came online between 1958 and 1961. It is now operated by RusHydro.

Despite hydraulic fish-lift technology being incorporated into the design, the dam has contributed to a dramatic reduction of the spawning grounds of sturgeon, including the prized beluga fish, according to Dickinson.

“It is undeniable that the Volgograd station has played a part in the demise of the Russian caviar industry,” she writes, noting that the sturgeon population in the Volga has fallen 90% since 1970, prompting a Russian ban on commercial sturgeon fishing and black caviar exports in 2002.

Restrictions on caviar production and sales have led to a thriving black market that is supplied by illegal poaching, threatening the Volga’s sturgeon population even further.

Dickinson’s advice for soccer fans visiting Volgograd for the World Cup is not to buy any black caviar to take home as a souvenir. “But, if you are that way inclined,” she adds, “make sure to stick to customs regulations and try your utmost to ensure the caviar is from reputable farmed sources.”

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