Fishy goings-on as Caspian sturgeon hurtle toward extinction

By bne IntelliNews June 18, 2007

Christopher Pala in Atyrau, Kazakhstan -

For black market caviar in Atyrau, Kazakhstan's sturgeon capital a few miles from the Caspian Sea, you need go no further than the main market, where a stout woman standing behind a stall groaning under piles of carp, pike and sturgeon from the nearby Ural River delivers the bad news: beluga caviar now costs $800 a kilo, up from $400 last year and $35 a decade ago. Less sought-after sevruga and osietra caviar cost $500 a kilo.

"If you want to take it out, let me know, I have a friend in customs at the airport," she adds helpfully, trying to make a sale.

The rise in price in part reflects Atyrau's rapid development as a booming oiltown. Nearby oil deposits are expected to turn Kazakhstan, a once-obscure part of the Soviet Union, into one of the world's top exporters within a decade, with a ratio of oil revenue to population similar to that of Saudi Arabia's.

But the high price of caviar also highlights how deeply overfished the world's last major population of sturgeon has become.

The 250m-year-old species, once plentiful on both US coasts and in Western Europe where it was even called the common sturgeon (it's now extinct), has been nearly wiped out in the Caspian over the past 20 years after a half-century of carefully calibrated fishing during the Soviet period. During that period, fishing at sea was prohibited and sturgeon were only caught in nets in rivers on alternate days during the summer, when they swim upriver to spawn. In addition, some 20 hatcheries, including two here, each year released several million baby sturgeon into the sea.

Today, the soaring profitability of poaching – a single beluga's roe can yield a fisherman $15,000 – and the realization among the fishing community that the sturgeon will soon be gone has led to what fishermen, law-enforcement officers and scientists describe as an unprecedented frenzy of poaching.

Pay-offs and shoot-outs

Just this year, the poaching has resulted in shootouts, disappearances at sea, law-enforcement agencies accusing each other of corruption and the indictment of the city's main cannery managers on charges of poaching. It also illustrates why Kazakhstan ranks way down at 111 out of 163 in a survey of least-corrupt countries put out by the anti-graft organisation Transparency International

On January 4, the financial police announced it had arrested a manager of the cannery (the other three had fled to Russia) and formally charged the team with what local papers had been reporting for years: fishing at sea "under cover of the scientific catch" a far greater number of sturgeon than was allowed and "forging fishermen's signatures to show they were caught in the Ural River."

The cannery had forced the Atyrau branch of the once-powerful Caspian Fisheries Research Institute, whose scientists studied sturgeon and decided on how much sturgeon could be fished, to relinquish its right to take fish from the sea near the mouth of the Ural, where the sturgeon gather and wait for conditions to be just right to make their voyage upriver.

"Since the fall of 2004," a Financial Police statement said, "Atyraubalyk management has used criminal schemes for tax evasion and money laundering and buying sturgeon illegally caught at sea." As a result, 4.6 tonnes of caviar and 78 tonnes of sturgeon meat were impounded, and remain so today.

The cannery is owned by relatives of Timur Kulibayev, who is married to one of President Nazarbayev's three daughters and is considered the second-most powerful man in the country.

According to sources close to the cannery, the arrests were in part merely "theatre" designed to publicly justify the nationalization of the cannery. The sources said it was the first act of a plan that includes joining the two state sturgeon hatcheries and putting them under a single holding company, which would eventually be sold off to private interests. In the meantime, the hatcheries would see their function change from altruistically released baby sturgeon into the sea to becoming a fish farm, raising sturgeon to sell the caviar. With the decline of the wild sturgeon population and the rise in the price of caviar, sturgeon farms like those in Sacramento, California and near Bordeaux, in France have become increasingly profitable.

Atyraubalyk is not the only institution accused of poaching. This year, the Kazakhstani successor agency to the old Soviet KGB spy service, the KNB, issued a statement noting, "the increase of illegal fishing in the Caspian Sea and the highly organized criminal nature of poaching." It warned of such "irreparable consequences" as the extinction of the Caspian sturgeon.

The KNB also accused the Water Police – one of 10 agencies charged with fighting poaching – of "involvement in illegal fishing."

"Organized provocation!" thundered the head of the Water Police, Mereke Izmuratov, to Lev Guzikov, a local journalist who covers poaching in an independent local weekly, Ak Zhaik. "Those who stand behind this activity want to remove me so they can organize large-scale poaching while the fish are still here," he quoted Izmuratov as saying.

Local journalists, scientists and fishermen confirm that virtually every one of the half-dozen law-enforcement agencies that patrol the river and the sea either get payoffs from poachers or else hire and supervise the poachers themselves. Super-fast boats known as "baidas" used exclusively by poachers can be seen regularly showing up in Atyrau to buy supplies. In addition, many are now manned by poachers from nearby Dagestan, Russia, where "pretty much everything has been fished out – sturgeon and non-sturgeon."

The poaching frenzy may not last long. An oil company executive reports seeing poachers' nets at sea as far as 15 kilometres from the Ural River's mouth. "There is so much competition that they are going after the fish farther and farther away," he says.

Poachers, unable to distinguish between females and males, slice open the bellies of both and keep only the eggs when they find them, says a former poacher. When this correspondent took a trip at sea near the delta last year, the floating carcasses were almost as numerous as the tell-tale empty plastic bottles that showed the illegal gill nets' location.

It's been three years since the scientific institute was able to make a count of wild baby sturgeon swimming down the river. That count indicated that fewer than 300 sturgeon had succeeded in spawning. How many made it this year is anyone's guess.

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