The Caspian Sea, the Earth’s largest enclosed body of water, was once teaming with enormous sturgeon, salmon and numerous other fish including the Whitefish, a mainstay of inland European fisheries in the Middle Ages.
The region is a textbook case of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ with its endemic species of sturgeon, seals and salmon in danger of extinction as a result of over-exploitation and pollution, exacerbated by disputes over the boundaries of territorial waters between the five littoral states.
The future of these endangered fish and the habitats upon which they rely appears dire due to over-fishing, pollution, the introduction of non-native species and damming of rivers in the mid 20th century.
These fish that migrate between fresh and salt water to feed and reproduce were stopped in their tracks. BLUE has been working in the region for the last two years in an attempt to save these extraordinary marine species from extinction in the wild.
The project is gaining momentum by the day through targeted restoration programmes, sustainable aquaculture and support from littoral state governments. BLUE works closely with an NGO in Azerbaijan, International Dialogue for Environmental Action (IDEA).
The first marine protected area (MPA) in the Caspian was designated in 2018 in an area crucial for the survival of juvenile fish. A ban on plastic gill nets and targeting dredging will open the river mouths so that anadromous fish can move freely upriver to spawn.
Genetic analysis is identifying diverse populations to be reared and released into restored riverine and coastal environments and a country-wide initiative to improve education and awareness of the marine environment is underway – this will include promotion of eco-tourism and the creation of alternative livelihoods for local fishers.
Through a holistic approach, BLUE is hopeful for a recovery of the Caspian Sea, changing the habitual exploitation of marine resources into a sustainable relationship between communities and the environment.
As the project moves forward it will focus on:
- The development of state-of-the-art sturgeon aquaculture in Azerbaijan, guided by international experts and identifying a sustainable source of fishmeal for the growing industry. There is great potential for extensive sturgeon and salmon aquaculture to meet market demand with a sustainable source of fish and caviar. This, in time, and with adequate enforcement, will reduce the fishing pressure on wild stocks.
- A restoration project in the Kura and Araks Rivers will focus on ensuring that adult sturgeon can reach spawning grounds uninterrupted and that farm-raised fingerlings released into the upper river system, can reach the Caspian Sea.
- The scientific monitoring, protection and restoration of the few remaining sturgeon spawning sites in the Kura and Araks Rivers.
- The assessment of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, black markets for caviar and potential for substitution with aquaculture products.
- The development of tourism/public awareness through recreational fishing, guided tours and PR.
- The implementation of a strategic network of marine protected areas in coastal sites, focusing on fish feeding and nursery areas and key estuaries that provide access to upstream spawning sites.