STRAKHOLISSYA, Ukraine – On the edge of the Chornobyl exclusion zone, 60 kilometers north of Kyiv, lies Strakholissya, a village of 700 people surrounded by the picturesque Pripet marshes.
After the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and the closing of the nearby state farm in the 1990s, fishing became one of the main sources of income for villagers. The fish population is stronger there than in other areas because of its proximity to the exclusion zone and the protected wetlands, where fishing is officially banned.
But for several years rumors have swirled in Kyiv that the fish bought by wholesalers in Strakholessiya, which is then sold on to restaurants and shops, actually comes from within the waters that are part of the exclusion zone.
Fishing activists such as Andriy Nelipa, head of the Fishermen Community of Ukraine, a non-governmental organization, have caught Chornobyl employees, some of whom live in the village, leaving the exclusion zone in cars packed with fish. He claims that Strakholissya is one of the key sales points for fish from the zone and warned about the dangers of eating food contaminated by radiation.
“The people who sell it don’t care. They don’t eat it,” said Nelipa, who claims that 100 tons of fish are caught every year in the zone, selling for around one euro a kilo.
The head of Ukraine’s Institute of Agricultural Radiology, Valeriy Kashparov, however, disputes the dangers. He says that the river has naturally filtered out the radiation and even those fish that feed off the bottom, such as catfish, are safe to eat. However, he agrees that it is better to be on the safe side and not consume any fish from the area.
It’s difficult to determine the number of fish being sold from the zone to Kyiv’s restaurants and supermarkets. Partly because of the current lack of proper certification of origin, according to Yarema Kovaliv, recently appointed head of the State Fisheries Agencies, tasked with controlling fishing in Ukraine. Another, more important factor, is the total control of Chernobyl’s employees. Kovaliv’s body controls the entire nation’s waters, apart from those in the zone.
Vitaliy Petruk, who became head of the Chornobyl zone just before the 30th anniversary of the disaster this year, says that it is possible that this does happen, but wouldn’t go as far as to confirm that zone workers are involved. Petruk says his aim is to improve conditions for the zone’s workers, and thereby stop any illegal activities.
“For the last 25 years it has been completely closed off. No one really knew what was going on behind that fence,” said Sergii Mirnyi, the managing director of Chornobyl Tours, which has the exclusive rights to take tourists on visits to the Chornobyl exclusion zone.
Despite the Fisheries Agency having no access to the zone itself, they are now the key force lobbying (successfully) for a series of improvements in the legislation, including certificates of origin from catch to consumer which would use computerized systems for monitoring fishing, larger fines, and even criminal charges for violations.
As with other state bodies, the Fisheries Agency, following the EuroMaidan Revolution that deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, has undergone an overhaul in the Kyiv Oblast which is now being rolled out to other agencies.
“We can’t control what happens in the zone, but if we find them selling without documents we can fine them – although we can never tell where the fish actually came from,” said Dianna Kladova, the press secretary of the State Fisheries Agency.
As with the new patrol police, training of the fish agency was intensive, salaries were raised, and money was found for smart new uniforms. A former commercial lawyer, Kovaliv, was brought in to head the agency, and all of the previous inspectors were forced to re-apply for their jobs – only a few still work there.
Oleksandr Tkachenko is one of the Fisheries Agency’s new employees. He is based near Strakholissya, in the guardhouse of disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych’s hunting lodge.
“I used to have a business in Luhansk but when (the war) started we moved here,” Tkachenko said. “I saw this job, and thought it looked interesting.”
The numerous allegations of illegal fishing have led to the newly staffed State Fisheries Agency to prioritize the waterways surrounding Strakholissya.
On an early morning patrol with the agency’s reformed Kyiv unit along the edge of the exclusion zone, we encountered half a dozen fishermen in small boats, including one former employee of the agency, who were told sternly to move down the river away from the marshes.
However, current fines are so meager (between Hr 30- 400) that they serves as little deterrence, Kovaliv complained. Further down the river in the Kyiv Sea, the patrol checked the documents of several larger fishing boats which sell to the likes of supermarket chain Silpo – everything was in order.
But this is one of the few patrols the police are able to do each month. According to Kovaliv, their current budget only allows for 10 hours of petrol for each boat per month, and a typical patrol lasts for two to three hours. In the meantime, the police are waiting to receive a recently approved sum of Hr 15 million ($600,000) for new boats, additional staff and enough petrol to be on the water when necessary.
Next year, Kovaliv plans to start the process anew in other oblasts across Ukraine. The agency has already appointed new regional heads for Cherkasy, Zaporizhzhya, Chernivtsiv and Poltava oblasts, and is recruiting heads for Odesa, Ternopil, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Ivan-Frankivsk oblasts.