Caspian States to Revise Sturgeon Quotas

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan, August 20, 2007 (ENS) - The countries around the Caspian Sea must adopt a common policy to clamp down on poaching and reduce environmental damage if they are protect sturgeon stocks, but effective cooperation is still a long way off, say analysts from NBCentralAsia, a network of journalists from across the region.

Representatives from the Caspian states agreed to work out a new quota distribution system for sturgeon fishing during a regular meeting of the Commission on the Biological Resources of the Caspian Sea held on August 11 in Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran all border the Caspian Sea, and catch various species of sturgeon for their flesh and caviar. Up to 90 percent of the world's black caviar comes from the Caspian region.

Large sturgeons are becoming rare in the Caspian Sea. (Photo courtesy CITES)
The current system, which excludes Iran, allots fishing quotas according to the contribution each state makes to replenishing stocks. Russia's quota is 70 percent, Kazakstan's is 18 percent and Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have around six percent each.

Iran's catch is not included in these percentages, although Iran is responsible for more than half the Caspian's caviar production, according to Mohammad Purkazemi, director of the International Sturgeon Research Institute of Iran.

The new system would involve Iran, too, and would incorporate added criteria such as the efforts each country puts into tackling poachers and limiting environmental damage to marine life and coastal areas.

Iran called for reduction of sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea to protect the fish stocks, said Iranian Deputy Minister of Agriculture and head of the Fishery Organization Sha'ban-Ali Nezami, who was in Ashgabat for the meeting. Iran prefers raising sturgeon by aquaculture, he said.

Even though the quota system is designed to preserve stocks, poachers still account for at least 70 percent of the total catch.

Iranian caviar from the Caspian Sea. (Photo courtesy Pilot Guides)
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, says that large numbers of sturgeon are dying because of oil pollution from industry.

NBCentralAsia experts say that the Caspian countries urgently need to adopt a strict common policy on poaching and environmental damage. But for this to work properly, they will need to resolve their long-running dispute over ownership of the sea.

Rovshan Ibrahimov, the head of international relations at Qafqaz University in Baku, Azerbaijan, believes there should be tougher penalties for those who sell sturgeon flesh and caviar as well as for the poachers.

Ibrahimov believes the new quota system must stress the responsibility each country has for nurturing the young fish, and must make provision for a possible moratorium on fishing to allow the population to regenerate.

He warns that such measures will only work if they are accompanied by tough action stop poaching, "otherwise it will simply increase illegal fishing."

The head of the Tabigat environmental group in Kazakstan, Mels Eleusizov, believes the quota system is only a half-measure which will not be enough to save the sturgeon. He would like to see rigorous steps taken to protect spawning areas.

The chances of an oil spill have also been raised since Kazakstan joined the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, increasing the number of oil tankers crossing the Caspian.

Oil derricks in Baku Harbor, Azerbaijan (Photo courtesy IAEA)
"Even a minor accident resulting in an oil spill in a closed-in area of water like the Caspian will be a major catastrophe for the sturgeon," said an NBCentralAsia observer in Ashgabat.

Agreeing common regulations to protect the sturgeon will be a difficult task given that the unresolved question of where the maritime boundaries should lie in the Caspian.

NBCentralAsia political analyst Eduard Poletaev said, "There will always be problems with one country accusing another of breaching some accord until there is joint responsibility and until a single inter-government organization is granted powers to deal with Caspian issues."

The Commission on the Biological Resources of the Caspian Sea was established in 1992 on the initiative of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia. In 2002, Iran joined the Commission.

The Commission interacts with other international organizations, coordinates activities of member states on management, sustainable use and preservation of the Caspian biological resources, coordinates joint research and scientific cooperation, and acts to establish the order of defining of quotas for fishing sturgeon, sprat and seal.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR}

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