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Azeri Fishermen Lament Vanished Shrimps
By Idrak Abbasov

PIRALLAHI ISLAND, Azerbaijan, November 24, 2009 (ENS) - The fishermen perched on the beached boats on the Azerbaijan coast watched Faiq Balayev as he threw out his net, drew it in and trudged back to the shore. They need not have bothered, since he had once again failed to catch any shrimps.

"The net was empty again. I have stood in the water for three hours, and I haven't caught even 200 grams of shrimps," he said, as he returned to dry land on Pirallahi Island.

Oil platform near Pirallahi Island in the Caspian Sea (Photo by Rita Willaert)

"It's been two years since the shrimps vanished from the Apsheron shore of the Caspian. And in these last few days, I have been returning home with almost nothing. Maybe 200-250 grams of small shrimps end up in my nets, but no one buys them. I give them to friends who fish to use as bait."

From Pirallahi, which juts into the Caspian Sea from the Apsheron peninsula some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Baku, oil platforms are visible a kilometer offshore, and ecologists blame the pollution caused by the oil industry for the collapse in the shrimp population.

"It's not just shrimps, but the other resources of the Caspian too which are dying because of oil and gas production," said Telman Zeynalov, president of the National Centre of Environmental Forecasting.

He says shrimps rely on minute water plants and animals for food, but the sea floor has become heavily polluted with oil recently, meaning the micro-organisms have died.

"The problem is that in the last two years they have started to clean up the ships and other metallic objects that had been dumped in the sea, and as a result the oil spills of many years have once again been stirred into the sea water and caused the deaths of the marine resources of the coastal area," Zeynalov said.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, many rich Azeris have built mansions along the shore of the Apsheron peninsula and this has also, according to Zeynalov, harmed the Caspian Sea's water quality.

Oil well on the Apsheron Peninsula, Azerbaijan (Photo by Kvitlauk)

"There is no empty space left on the Apsheron coast in particular. The shore is full of private houses owned by oligarchs or by private beaches. These constructions cause great harm to wildlife," he said.

"I should say though, that recently they have stopped pumping untreated sewage from the Apsheron peninsula into the Caspian. This is positive. However, if the sea life is still dying that means a lot of problems remain unresolved."

He said that the gas that is flared off the oil platforms also contributes to the problem, since fluoride compounds created by the burning fall onto the surface of the sea and the shore, polluting it further.

"Light red and orange sediment on the shore is a result of these fluoride compounds. These compounds also cause the creatures' deaths," the ecologist said.

A senior employee of the state oil company SOCAR, Agasadiq Gasimov said the company is working hard to adopt new technologies to reduce pollution, and is trying to clean up pollution that had already been caused. He denied that the shrimps were even dying.

"These conclusions are not confirmed by any official information, nor by the results of any scientific research. And in Pirallahi, there is no production of oil and gas anyway, so you can't even talk about pollution of this place," he said.

A fisherman tries his luck in the waters of the Apsheron Peninsula (Photo by Ben Angel)

"Around 20 years ago people only ate peas when they drank beer and many of them did not even know what a shrimp was. And now beer is also sold together with shrimps. Even fishermen like to use shrimps as bait, although 20 years ago everyone used worms. If now people feel a shortage of shrimps it is because demand is so high."

Beer drinkers in Baku have definitely been forced to look for another snack, since shrimps have become so expensive that it renders an evening out too much of an extravagance.

"You have to spend five or six manats (US$6-7.50) in the market for 150 grams of shrimps. There are imported ones in tins, but they are even more expensive," said Rafiq Rustamov, a Baku resident.

The Caspian Fish Company, which is in charge of fish production and processing in Azerbaijan, confirmed the dire situation. "Shrimps are very small here now, so we prefer to buy them abroad," a spokesman said.

But not everyone is upset by the situation. Back on Pirallahi Island, Kamil Shirinov, a fisherman, had just been given a handful of shrimps by his friend Faiq Balayev.

"I have sat here now for almost five hours, and I have not been able to catch a single little fish. But when I use shrimps as bait, even big fish like beluga end up on the hook," he said with a smile.

{Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent of "Ayna" newspaper. This article originally appeared November 20, 2009 in Caucasus Reporting Service, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.



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