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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Caspian Basin: no way to halt sturgeon poaching
Momentum is building among Caspian Basin governments for a moratorium on sturgeon fishing, in order to protect the lucrative caviar trade. Informal discussions with fishermen, however, suggest that an official ban would be unlikely to halt the dangerous depletion of sturgeon stocks.
Sturgeon levels in the Caspian have plummeted since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Environmentalists say over-fishing, in particular poaching, is a major problem. The fish are the source of highly coveted beluga caviar, and the Caspian Basin is responsible for generating roughly 90 percent of the global supply of the much sought-after delicacy.
According to some estimates, Caspian sturgeon could become extinct within about a decade, if the current fishing trend keeps up. The news in recent years has been sufficiently alarming that the governments of Caspian littoral states have taken note, and have expressed a willingness to act collectively to try to protect sturgeon. Russia is leading efforts to impose a ban on sturgeon fishing as early as 2009.
Experts question whether officials have the resources and the will to enforce such a ban. Given the depressed economic circumstances in areas bordering the sea, sturgeon poaching and caviar production remain a significant source of income for thousands of financially stressed families. Without the introduction of programs that offer fishermen and poachers alternative ways to carve out a livelihood, it is doubtful that a moratorium would succeed in reducing the annual haul of sturgeon, which now stands at about 1,000 tons.
Poachers openly say that economic necessity requires them to keep going after sturgeon, even if it means facing criminal charges. "Yes, Im a poacher, but what can I do? I have to feel sorry for either fish or my family," one Turkmen national said recently. "There are no jobs; for the few ones that exist, Im not hired because Im much older than 40, which is why I have to [poach]."
Another major factor that would prompt many to flout a ban is the widespread lack of trust in officials in Caspian littoral states ' including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan ' to act in the publics best interest. Many Caspian Basin residents believe regional leaders put their own personal considerations above those of the state.
"The talk of preserving nature for the future generations will not change anything," said the Turkmen fisherman. "Our people have long lost trust in officials promises of bright future. They do not think about tomorrow; they cannot afford to, like they cannot afford to let big fish get off the hook. Its hard to be a law-abiding citizen on an empty stomach."
According to another Caspian Basin poacher, in each Caspian Basin state there are several large and well-organized poaching operations. These groups are well-connected, paying bribes to ensure that officials turn a blind eye toward their activity.
Officials in some cases have taken steps to curb the illicit trade in caviar. In late April, for example, Russian officials conducted a highly publicized sweep in the Astrakhan region that led to the opening of 28 criminal cases against alleged poachers. Such operations, however, stand little chance of discouraging illegal activity.
"All the so-called fishery conservation inspections are deeply corrupt," one fisherman said. "Inspectors often order fish and caviar from us."
The methods used by poachers are accelerating the pace of the disappearance of sturgeon. In Azerbaijan, for example, environmental groups have documented that the use of dynamite and other home-made explosive devices is common.
Poachers recognize that their activities can cause lasting harm to the seas ecological balance, but some maintain that they are only a small part of the problem. They point to energy companies, and off-shore exploration and drilling as actions far more hazardous to the well-being of sturgeon and other wildlife. "The oil industry is much more damaging to marine fauna, but its barely ever mentioned, because big money is involved," says Nazar, a fourth-generation Caspian fisherman.
It is not the seepage of oil from off-shore wells that is causing the most harm. Instead, it is the byproducts of drilling, mainly the release of hazardous hydrogen-sulphide, that is wiping out marine life. In one notorious instance in 2001, at least 250,000 tons of sprats, a small fish that is a source of food for sturgeon, were killed by the release of hydrogen-sulphide. Sprats, once plentiful, have now virtually disappeared from the Caspian. The hazards posed by hydrogen-sulphide only stand to grow worse in the coming years. Kazakhstans Kashagan field, which is due to begin pumping oil in 2011, has extremely high levels of hydrogen-sulphide, a fact that has caused repeated delays in the fields production timetable.
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Issues/Corruption / mismanagement
Eastern Europe and North Asia/Azerbaijan
Eastern Europe and North Asia/Kazakhstan
Eastern Europe and North Asia/Russian Federation
Eastern Europe and North Asia/Turkmenistan
Ocean Areas/Caspian Sea