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Azeri Fishermen Plunder Sturgeon Stocks

Corrupt officials in Azerbaijan are suspected of lining their pockets with the proceeds of illegal sturgeon fishing.
By Kamal Ali

It rains caviar in Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, illegal sturgeon fishing has reached such epidemic proportions that poachers have been known to dump their excess harvest from aeroplanes.


The region's markets are overflowing with tins of black-market sturgeon eggs. Baku's "New Market" is full of unlicensed traders selling tins and cellophane bags full of the delicacy. The former are stolen from factories, while the latter are a product of the illegal 'harvesting' of sturgeons out at sea.


So widespread is the illicit trade, the United States - where the annual $75 million consumption of caviar accounts for only 30 per cent of the global trade - now refuses to import caviar without a certificate stating it was caught legally.


Poaching is risky in more ways than one.The criminals pay little attention to hygiene when processing the roe -the health hazards associated with sealing freshly harvested eggs in cellophane are obvious.


But, more importantly, the illegal trade could bring about an ecological disaster.The removal of Soviet era restrictions - which strictly limiting caviar fishing to estuaries of the Volga and Kura rivers - is devastating stocks.


"You used to catch three sturgeon a day," said one fisherman. "Now you won't catch a single one for three days."


Scientists are increasingly alarmed by dwindling stocks."The number of new fish has fallen to a catastrophically low level," said Rafig Kasimov, head of the fish physiology and toxicology laboratory at the Academic Institute of Physiology. "


The number of sturgeon in the Caspian has fallen so much that one breed has been entered into the international "Red Book" of endangered species." Because almost all Caspian countries allow widespread illegal fishing, says Kasimov, there will be no sturgeon left within three to five years.


Poachers are not the only culprits. The state fishing enterprise, Azerbalyg, does not appear to be taking the problem seriously. It routinely flouts fishing quotas - to the extent that its overfishing is widely publicized in the Russian press - while airily dismissing concerns over stocks.


Academics who express concern are "misleading society," says senior Azerbalyg' official, Tariel Mamedli, and have "no expertise" in modern industrial fish farming.


Mamedli insists Azerbaijan is not over producing the delicacy, merely catching up on unused fishing quotas going back seven years. He even boasts the country broke all previous records for the volume of its caviar exports last year.


Nor will he acknowledge the scale of the poaching trade. The huge volumes of caviar in the region's markets, says Mamedli, are imports from Turkmenistan and Kalmykia.


His claims have not washed with sceptical journalists. The national newspaper, Khurriet, recently alleged that Azerbalyg's ships are often unregistered to enable them to moonlight as poaching vessels. It also claimed that poachers routinely bribe Azerbalyg managers.


Mamedli's official response has been fairly muted, considering the severity of the accusations. He's flatly denying all accusations of wrongdoing, but failed to demand a retraction or apology from the paper. Instead, he claimed, somewhat implausibly, that the paper's editor is a sacked fishing worker out for revenge.


He's made similarly improbable claims in the past. When an Iranian environmental official criticised Azerbalyg overfishing and failure to restock, Mamedli simply retorted that Iran was responsible for most of the poaching.


Blame should be squarely placed on the shoulders of Azerbalyg, state bureaucrats and poachers, all of whom are engaged in profiteering and exploitation. Turning a blind eye to poaching has become a sure-fire way to line one's pockets in modern Azerbaijan. The only losers, it seems, are the fish.


Kamal Ali is a deputy editor for social issues for the daily Zerkalo in Baku.


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