Azerbaijan: Sturgeon Poachers Out of Control

By Sabuhi Nasirli

HOVSAN, Azerbaijan, May 17, 2007 (ENS) - When a south wind blows from the Caspian Sea towards the coastal village of Hovsan, 32 kilometers (20 miles) east of the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, hundreds of dead fish are washed ashore.

The fish are the victims of illegal poachers and indiscriminate methods of killing their prey that are threatening stocks of sturgeon, an endangered species and the most precious resource of the Caspian.

In spring, all kinds of fish swim for shallow waters in order to spawn caviar in warmer waters. Here they fall prey to illegal explosives used by the poachers.

Along the shoreline you can meet amateur fishermen with rods but also men who are evidently poachers getting ready to lay explosive charges.

Amateur fishermen try their luck at Hovsan (Photo courtesy Azerbaijan International)
The ordinary fishermen say that for the last 10 years poachers have been catching fish on this spot, mostly unhindered and using dynamite or homemade explosives made of fertilizers. They go out fishing in motorboats either early in the morning or late at night.

Fishing is one of the most lucrative businesses in modern day Azerbaijan. On the black market, a kilo of fresh sturgeon can be bought for 10 manats (US$12) while a kilo of black caviar costs around 120 manats (US$140). Overseas, these prices can be dozens of times higher.

International alarm about a steep decline in sturgeon stocks prompted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, to halt exports of Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea in 2006.

CITES lifted the ban in 2007, prompting objections from many environmentalists. One of them, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, co-founder of the organization Caviar Emptor, which monitors the caviar trade, called the decision a "death sentence," maintaining that the Beluga sturgeon has lost more than 90 percent of its population in recent years.

The Caspian Fish Company has a monopoly over most fishing in the Azerbaijani sector of the sea, but it appears powerless to rein in the poachers.


Beluga caviar from Azerbaijan (Photo courtesy Caspian Fish Company)
One of the poachers, who asked not to be named, said that one explosive charge is capable of causing an underground shock wave 15 to 20 meters in radius, which throws most of the dead fish to the surface.

"The big heavy fish stay down below," he said. "We get these fish out of the depths with the help of divers."

Others said it was rare to use divers and that most of the big dead fish come ashore within two or three days, creating a horrible pile of carcasses on the beach.
This is a crowded shoreline, home also to a number of summer houses for wealthy Baku residents, a special fishermen's zone, a bathing beach and 10 kilometer (six mile) long oil and-gas terminal, built in Soviet times 55 years ago.

A local resident, who also declined to be named, said he had seen how the oil terminal, which extends into the sea, has also been damaged by the poachers' explosions and that it is now on the verge of collapse.

A spokesman for the Azerbaijani oil company SOCAR declined to confirm this information. He said the terminal was well guarded and it is impossible for strangers and especially for poachers to gain access to its territory.

The amateur fisherman are also unhappy about the poachers in their midst.

"Fishing is a recreation for us," said Rizvan Makhmudov, 45. "And when your line doesn't catch anything all the recreation has gone."

Makhmudov said he catches fewer and fewer fish and that the poachers are fishing stocks to the point of extinction in full view of witnesses.

"Four or five people in motor boats drive up to Gum Island where the amateur fisherman are fishing legally," he said. "One of them chooses a place where there are a lot of fish, then the boat moves towards that spot at low speed. Then they light the wicks of specially prepared explosives in bottles and throw them in the water."

Makhmudov said that the blasts killed not just fish, but also other marine life, such as seals.


Caspian seals are vulnerable to the explosives used by sturgeon poachers. (Photo by Pavel Prosyanov courtesy KaspNIRKh)
Another amateur fisherman, Aydin Bairamov, 42, said that he has seen illegal poaching take place in these parts since Soviet times. He said that a number of influential people who have summer houses here are now trying to fight the problem on their own initiative.

One of these is a retired general Rasul Rasumov, who is a former head of Azerbaijan's Police Academy - and also a keen fisherman. He tries to stop poachers wherever he can.

But the efforts of individuals are no substitute for an official clampdown on poaching.

Ehsan Zahidov, a spokesman for Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry, said his ministry did not play the leading role in fighting poachers and it was the job of the department for protection of biological resources in the environment ministry although he added the police were ready to take part in joint operations if required.

Gulshan Huseinova, press spokesman for the environment ministry, dismissed the charge that poachers were operating freely and said her ministry monitored the situation closely.

"Because of strong winds we haven't been able recently to carry out raids in the open sea," she said. "In the Neftchali and Salian regions our officers are constantly observing the situation. The information you are talking about has not been proved."

Environmentalists are especially worried about the way poachers target fish just as they are spawning.


Netting sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. CITES has recommended conservation measures and improved enforcement to combat illegal trade in caviar, but the illegal trade is still growing. (Photo courtesy European Union)
The area around the Shirvan Canal that runs to the sea in the Salian region is another favorite fishing ground and magnet for poachers. During the spawning season, different kinds of fish head from the sea for fresh water here. "If, of course, the nets of the poachers don't stop them from reproducing," said Jahangir Mirzoyev, 47.

Locals say the number of sturgeon here has fallen sharply. Ten kilometers up the canal there are plenty of nets belonging to poachers. One of the men casting a net said that he paid a monthly bribe to officials to allow them to continue his trade.

"If it keeps on like this our grandchildren won't know about these different kinds of fish," said Mirzoyev bitterly.

Environmental expert Telman Zeinalov, head of the nongovernmental organization the National Centre for Ecological Forecasting, said that by acting during the spawning season and using explosives, the poachers are destroying whole varieties of fish.

"There is plenty of evidence of poaching," he said, "and I have no doubts that the poachers are being protected by senior officials."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR. Sabuhi Nasirli is a correspondent for "Zerkalo" newspaper in Baku, Azerbaijan.}