The Caspian Sea’s first Hope Spot established to protect critically endangered sturgeon

November 8, 2019

Educational facilities at the new Hope Spot

The first marine park in the Caspian Sea, first suggested by BLUE, has been awarded the description of a “Hope Spot” by Mission Blue, a non-profit organisation founded by the US explorer, scientist and author, Sylvia Earle.

Hope Spots are ecologically unique areas of the ocean nominated for protection because of their ability to reverse the damage from human impacts under a global conservation campaign backed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Ghizilagaj is the first Hope Spot with no connection to the ocean, though the Caspian Sea is saline and was connected to the global ocean about 5.5 million years ago.

Blue Marine Foundation and the local conservation group IDEA first advocated the preservation of Ghizilagaj, as the marine extension of a terrestrial national park, in 2017 as part of a conservation programme for the Caspian Sea’s seven critically endangered species of sturgeon.  It was subsequently made a national park by the government of Azerbaijan.  The award of “Hope Spot” status gives it regional and global significance.

Hope Spots are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean and marine life. They are about recognising, empowering and supporting individuals and communities around the world in their efforts to protect the ocean. Hope Spots are often areas that need new protection, but they can also be existing marine protected areas (MPAs) where more action is needed. There are currently 127 Hope Spots around the world.

Cattle grazing in Ghizilagaj

The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water on the planet and is home to approximately 400 endemic species. Once teeming with seven species of sturgeon and a unique species of salmon, the region has suffered a “tragedy of the commons” effect, with several sturgeon species currently in danger of extinction due to pollution and illegal fishing along the shores of the five countries that surround the sea.

However, Azerbaijan has been taking steps to preserve the health of this unique body of water. In September 2018, the government established the Ghizilagaj National Park – the first marine park in the Caspian Sea.

A juvenile sturgeon

Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says: “It’s up to us to stand up and use the knowledge we have to turn things around for the planet. I’m so proud of the work of Blue Marine Foundation and IDEA to push for marine reserves and educate young people on the importance of protecting their blue backyards for future generations.”

The marine protected area, which is adjacent to the Ghizilagaj National Park, was given IUCN Category 2 protection status by the Azerbaijan government.  The MPA’s wetlands serve as vital breeding grounds and wintering locations for marine birds.

However, Hope Spot champions Rory Moore, from BLUE, and Surkhay Shukurov, from IDEA, note that more work is needed to fully protect the wetlands from illegal fishing as well as pollution, with runoff from agriculture being a significant problem as the Caspian Sea has no outflow to the ocean. They are nonetheless optimistic that the new Hope Spot designation will spark a new wave of conservation efforts throughout the rest of the Caspian Sea.

BLUE’s Rory Moore

Leyla Aliyeva, Founder of IDEA, said: “This is a major step forward in our efforts to save the Caspian and its unique species, and we are extremely proud that Azerbaijan was the first country in the region to adopt such measures.”

Rory Moore, Senior Projects Manager at BLUE said: “If it can work in Ghizilagaj, there’s no reason why it can’t work throughout the rest of the Caspian Sea, touching Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

“There is an ingrained conservation theory in the region that the breeding and reintroduction of fish will solve the problem. It is unlikely that it will. The key is that BLUE and IDEA are working together to restore habitats and protect important marine areas like the Ghizilagaj National Park which we believe will ultimately reverse the decline of Caspian marine life.”

The right framework is already in place. Earlier in the year, the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea agreed to renew the ten-year moratorium on sturgeon fishing at the Commission for the Conservation, Sustainable Use of Marine Resources and Management of Joint Stocks, held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. With the right resources, Azerbaijan and the rest of the Caspian Sea nations can band together to save the sturgeon and preserve the enigmatic, beautiful Sea for generations to come.