Fisheries and marine animal population

One of the most important species for Caspian fishing communities is the beluga sturgeon. The sturgeon is the source of one of the world’s most expensive luxury foods: beluga caviar. This fish, that can live more than 100 years, does not reach sexual maturity until it is 15 to 25 years old, therefore making it very vulnerable in cases of overfishing. Moreover, sturgeons need to migrate upriver in order to spawn, while dam construction and river diversion have reduced the availability of suitable rivers.

It is commonly held that sturgeon supplies started to plummet after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.[1] This belief, which some take as evidence of the increasing difficulties in cooperation between the newly-formed littoral countries during the difficult transitional period of the 1990s, must be qualified and should not be taken for granted. According to the Caspian Environmental Programme (CEP), using data complemented by FAO, the total sturgeon catch in the Caspian peaked in 1979 at around 27 thousand tons, and already started to dramatically decline in the Eighties (see Figure 4.2).[2] The black market for illegal sturgeon and caviar boomed during the 1980s, and by 1989 the total catch had more than halved, most possibly due to illegal fishing. The decline continued at almost the same rate until 1993, when the total catch reached just 5 thousand tons. From then on the sturgeon catch kept on declining, although at a less rapid rate, and in 2007 it stood at less than 1 thousand tons a year. Today the beluga sturgeon is considered “critically endangered”; the formal classification that the International Union for Conservation of Nature applies to species just one step from being “extinct in the wild”.[3]

Fishing for wild sturgeon in the Caspian is now strictly regulated, and any export must be accompanied by international permits. However, overfishing and poaching continue: a recent study estimated that in 2006 more than 80% of the sturgeon catch in the Caspian was illegal.[4] On 27 December 2013, at the 34th meeting of the Commission for water biological resources of the Caspian Sea, the five riparian Caspian countries agreed to stop sturgeon catches for 2014.[5] But the fact remains that illegal fishing actually worsened the last time a moratorium was agreed between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia, in 2002.[6]

Today, overfishing can therefore still be considered one of the Caspian’s worst unresolved cooperation problems. Although it started more than a decade before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, it can be argued that the increase in sea pollution and much less regulated fishing during the 1980s heavily contributed to the decline, and could actually be interpreted as a symptom of Soviet decline - it was most certainly a signal of decreasing Soviet control over the Caspian area while attention was directed elsewhere. However, now there are increased attempts by littoral states to sustain the number of sturgeon population. Several pisciculture facilities, one of the biggest of them in Azerbaijan, Shirvan, operate in the littoral states for artificially breeding sturgeon and then releasing them in the sea to support population of the fish.

Fig. 4.2 - Total sturgeon catch in the Caspian (thousand tonnes per year), 1932-2007

Source: Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis, CEP, 2002

A second, similar problem is the progressive disappearance of the Caspian seal. Unsustainable levels of hunting for seal oil and fur through much of the 20th century contributed to reduce the Caspian seal population by more than 90% between 1900 and 2007.39 In the coming decades climate change may add to the problem, as the progressive warming of the Caspian may reduce the extent and duration of winter ice that Caspian seals depend upon for breeding.

At the same time as the beluga sturgeon and Caspian seals were decreasing, an opposite phenomenon was drastically changing the Caspian ecosystem: the introduction of alien species. Until the 20th century, the Caspian had remained relatively intact thanks to its secluded nature. But by the 1990s, increased maritime communications fostered the arrival of the warty comb jelly, brought accidentally in the ballast water of some oil tankers.40 In the Eight-

CEP, (2007).

V.P. Ivanov, et al., “Invasion of the Caspian Sea by the comb jellyfish Mnemiopsis leidyi (Ctenophora)”, Biological Invasions, no. 2, 2000, pp. 255-258.

ies, comb jelly had already invaded the Black Sea, then moving on to the Azov, Marmara and Aegean Sea. Given that the jelly reproduces faster than endemic species and eats the same food, it has upset the Caspian food chain, contributing to the gradual reduction of other marine animals specific to the Caspian Sea.

  • [1] L. Murphy, T. Nagel, The Myth of Ownership, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • [2] Caspian Environment Programme, Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis Revisit, 2007.
  • [3] International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Version2013.2.
  • [4] E. Strukova, O. Guchgeldiyev, Study of the Economics of Bio-Resources Utilization in the Caspian,CEP/World Bank, 2010.
  • [5], “Starting from 2014 coastal countries will stop commercial catch of Caspian sturgeon”, 27 December 2013.
  • [6] VV.AA., Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia 2003 (Regional surveys of the world), Routledge, 2002, p.128.
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