Azeri Sturgeon Fishermen Defy CITES Ban

By Idrak Abbasov

BAKU, Azerbaijan, July 11, 2006 (ENS) - Five men in shabby clothes laid siege to our car, as it slowed down approaching another bend in the road leading to the south of Azerbaijan. Each of them had a huge fish in his hands that measured around 70-80 centimeters in length.

"Ten shirvans each!" shouted the sellers, quoting a price worth just over US$20. They said the fish weighed between three and three-and-a-half kilos (6.6 to 8 pounds) each, and the price could be bargained down.

The scene was played out on June 15, in the village of Gumbashi, Lenkaran district, on Caspian Sea coast 300 kilometers (200 miles) south of Baku.

Azeris are defying a government ban on fishing for sturgeon, introduced after the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, earlier this year refused to grant any export quotas for sturgeon or sturgeon products from the four post-Soviet countries that border the Caspian, including Azerbaijan.

CITES contends that the export ban was necessary to protect the Caspian Sea from pollution, allow the sturgeon population to increase and fight poaching.

caviar

Baku Beluga from Azerbaijan is considered the rarest caviar in the world. It sells for $175 per ounce on the Internet, if available. (Photo courtesy Caviar Plaza)
"The illegal caviar trade is not only having a detrimental impact on wild sturgeon populations but is also undermining the legal trade in caviar and the various efforts by CITES to ensure that this trade is sustainable," said senior environment official at the European Commission Hugo-Maria Schally.

According to CITES, the total annual retail value of the wild caviar reported in international trade is estimated to be around 300-450 million euro (US$383-574 million).

However, CITES says, considering the large amounts of caviar that are traded illegally and sold on black markets, the total value is likely to be considerably higher.

The Azeri sellers from the village of Gumbashi, who would not give their names, said they had bought the fish from poachers. They refused to tell us anything about their whereabouts, but they proved easy to find. As you stroll along the Lenkoran coast, you can see whole families of fishermen busy mending their motorboats and nets.

Thinking I was a rich buyer from Baku, Myardan offered me a sturgeon for just under US$4 and other fish of the sturgeon type for a little less. However, he insisted he had no black caviar to sell.

sturgeon

Historically, 90 percent of the world's caviar has come from the Caspian Sea and its tributary rivers. But the effects of pollution, loss of spawning habitat, increased poaching and over-fishing have been devastating to the sturgeon population and, consequently, to caviar production. (Photo courtesy FAO)
"We catch small fish," said Alimardan. "Whereas caviar is from big fish. You have to sail far into the sea to catch it. Our boats are small and not fit to cover such big distances."

When he found out that I was a journalist, not a potential buyer, he said the fish he had just offered to sell belonged to some other man, whose name he wouldn't reveal. He then refused to talk to us, admitting only that he had no license to catch other fish either.

In no time, word spread among the local fishermen that "an inspector has arrived from Baku," and they avoided talking to us.

The same thing took place in the coastal village Nardaran 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from Baku, though its residents were somewhat more daring than the people of Lenkoran.

Alimammed catches mainly sazan and kutum fish, although, he said, sturgeon come his way too now and then. "Going out to sea, we often return empty-handed," he said. "There are no fish left in the sea, and you never know if sturgeon will get into your nets or not. It's like a lottery."

Alimammed believes he does not have to ask for anyone's permission to fish, because he says the sea does not belong to anyone. His father and grandfather lived by fishing and that is a tradition he is set to continue.

Many ordinary people believe that poachers pay off officials, but none of the fishermen confirmed this. "We are not those who give bribes, we are men," said Alimammed. "And we live as men should. Who can demand anything from me? They have already taken away our oil, and we have to rely on the remaining fish for our survival."

As a result of the ban, Azerbaijan's national fish has disappeared from Baku's markets. "Sturgeon are hard to find now. The police are making it all the more difficult," said a seller at the Teze Bazar market, Sabir Shykhaliev.

All the same, Shykhaliev was well aware of black-market prices for fish and black caviar.

fish

An Iranian fisherman pulls a sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. (Photo courtesy Dusharme.com)
According to him, sturgeon is cheapest in Lenkoran and some other regions, where one kilo (2.2 pounds) of the fish costs US$5 wholesale and US$7 at the counter, whereas the prices for caviar are US$230 wholesale and US$250 at the counter. In Baku, the price increases by between 20 and 50 percent.

Despite the government ban, the practice of catching sturgeon and selling black caviar continues in the fishing communities along the Caspian coast.

"We are taking serious efforts to fight poaching," said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry's Water Transport Police. "But for us, all the fish in the sea would be eliminated in a couple of days."

But the ministry says it is unable to provide precise, up-to-date information on how many poachers had been detained, as it is still compiling a report on the subject.

Gahraman Zahidli, who heads Azerbaijan's department for the regulation of the use of bio-resources, disputed CITES' justification for its export ban.

He claimed the Azerbaijani section of the Caspian is not polluted and the oil industry is using the latest and safest equipment there.

He claimed that the government is taking the necessary measures to fight poaching and increase sturgeon numbers, and that fish-breeding plants in Lenkoran, Neftchal and Alibairamly are working intensively to increase sturgeon stocks.

However, Telman Zeinalov, director of the Centre for National Ecological Forecasting of Azerbaijan, painted a far less rosy picture and supported the CITES' ban and the subsequent government prohibition.

"Only in Iran does everyone respect the law and therefore the state and ordinary people treat nature in a civilized way," he said. "There are practically no poachers there and there is no dirty water or chemicals in the sea. But other Caspian states do not observe these standards."

Zeinalov said that a combination of poaching and pollution from the oil and gas industries and industrial plants such as the Sumgait chlorine factory were killing off the sturgeon.

"Now pollution in the Caspian is 10 or 15 times above acceptable levels," he said. "And these chemicals are not only destroying sturgeon varieties of fish, but other species as well. For example, sturgeon feed off sprats and now there are practically no sprats left. They have all died."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent for the "Aina" newspaper in Baku. }