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Turkmenistan: Sturgeon Stocks Endangered

Poaching poses a serious threat to an increasingly depleted Caspian species.
By Murad Novruzov

Turkmen fishermen are knowingly contributing to the decline of the Caspian Sea’s beluga sturgeon population through intensive poaching – because they claim they have no other way to feed their families.

The fish, whose eggs are used to produce the delicacy caviar, may soon be declared an endangered species by the American government.

Poaching is spiralling far out of control, and experts believe that stocks of the beluga - which takes 15 years to reach maturity and can live to be more than 100 - will be utterly depleted in as little as two years’ time. It is estimated that sturgeon numbers have already fallen by 90 per cent in the past two decades.

The fishermen are all too aware of the plight of the fish – but their own grim situation leaves little room for sympathy.

Nicknamed “old sea dog” by his colleagues, Metin - his face is lined and burned by decades of wind, sun and salt - is the oldest fisherman in the area - which, he said, has seen better times.

“During the Soviet era, when coastal fisheries were flourishing, it was a very honourable, brave and, most importantly, profitable profession for a man,” he told IWPR.

Waving a gnarled hand at the dilapidated buildings, discarded nets and rusting machinery littering the port, he continued, “Unfortunately, as you can see, everything is in decline. The fishery farm shut down, there is no work for us anymore, and we have to struggle to survive on our own.

“One has to get a special license to fish, buy expensive equipment and, most importantly, we have to hand a large share of our catch to the local authorities.

“That’s why so many of us are involved in poaching. We understand well how dangerous it is, but we have to feed our children. To do this, we target the sturgeon as it is the most valuable.

“We can’t even imagine that one day there will be no more fish left in the sea, but poachers would not be solely to blame for that. Oil production harms the sea far more. It is mentioned only as a secondary problem though, because big money is involved.

“As for the questions of ethics and morals, these are not proper arguments in a situation where the poor have to rob to feed themselves.”

Scientists began to warn about the threat to the sturgeon population as far back as the late Sixties, but it took three decades before an agreement was made to lower fishing quotas.

Now Russia is entitled to the largest quota share, around three quarters, followed by Kazakstan, just under a fifth, and Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, a little over a twentieth each.

Nonetheless, plenty of sturgeon ends up on the stalls of Ashgabat fish markets – one is known to sell more than 200 kilos a day.

The United States Fish & Wildlife Department is currently pondering whether to declare the beluga an endangered species, which would lead to a ban on the sale of its caviar in the US – where 25 per cent of the delicacy is consumed. This will help by decreasing the demand, but greater efforts have to be made by the Caspian nations themselves.

The situation appears to have slipped out of the Turkmen authorities’ control, in spite of the efforts of various inspection teams, police units and border troops to tackle poaching.

Fishermen claim that the organisations responsible for protecting the fish are often very lenient towards the poachers – or are actively involved in the illegal fishing business themselves.

“All these so-called fish protecting inspectorates are quite thoroughly corrupt,” said one fisherman.

“At the moment, several poaching brigades are working on the Turkmen coast of the Caspian. The coast guards are not only well aware of this – they are actually our clients and order fish and caviar from us.”

“It is a very profitable business,” agreed a second fisherman. “Those who are not using our service simply charge us a fee and then close their eyes to our activity.”

Though caviar is one of the most expensive luxury products in the world, the Turkmen fishermen receive little for their catches.

“They buy it for a song from us. By the time the caviar reaches the Ashgabat bazaar its price has gone up several times. So it turns out we are risking our lives just to make enough to feed our families and maybe repair our equipment,” said another.

“I can’t afford to buy a new boat – and just ask my wife when our children last ate meat.”

Aina, a mother of four from the Turkmen port of Avaza, said, “We would really like to treat the children to something else, but here we eat whatever the catch brings us and can’t afford anything else.”

Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym for journalist in Asghabat.

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