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Iran's priciest export at risk

Overfishing and pollution are not only threatening production of Iran’s prized caviar, but also the health of millions of Iranians living along the shores of the Caspian Sea.
An inspector checks the quality of caviar before packaging in a sterile preparation room in Zibakenar 360km (223 miles) northwest of Tehran October 4, 2006. In April 2006 a U.N. body set up to safeguard endangered species said it was extending a ban on the export of caviar from the Caspian Sea for all countries except Iran. Iranians are trying to combat the demise of the sturgeon with ambitious networks of hatcheries, designed to replenish stocks by releasing millions of young fish each year. Environmentali

With Iran to its south and Russia to its north and west, the Caspian Sea is not only rich in oil and natural gas reserves, but it is also the world’s primary and largest habitat for the beluga, the most famous of the caviar sturgeons, as well as four other sturgeon species. This ancient fish, often described as a living fossil, has been swimming in the Caspian Sea since the time of the dinosaurs. It is one of the world’s most expensive and highly sought-after seafood, mainly for its coveted eggs. However, the deteriorating condition of the Caspian Sea has long been threatening this fish with extinction. For years, environmental researchers and activists in Iran have warned that because of the unclear legal status of the Caspian Sea, which makes it difficult to manage pollution, overfishing and poaching, the sturgeon will become extinct in the near future.

Esmail Kahrom, an adviser to the head of Iran's Environmental Protection Organization, told Al-Monitor, “Extinction in any part of the world is due to two factors. One is the destruction of a species’ habitat or threats to its environment, and the other is poaching. So on the one hand, we are destroying the sturgeon’s habitat, and on the other, we are overfishing it. Therefore, do you think any future other than extinction could await this fish?”

Kahrom believes that one of the factors endangering life in the Caspian Sea is its closed nature. An artificial canal built by the Soviet Union in 1952 connects the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea through the Volga and the Don rivers, its only link to external waters.

According to Kahrom, this canal has led to, in some aspects, damaging biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and also increased its pollution levels. He told Al-Monitor, “This canal and the ships that pass through it are bringing environmental pollutants and even invasive species into the Caspian Sea, and there is no way around it.” One of these invasive species is Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jellyfish said to have entered the Caspian Sea from the Black Sea via the Volga-Don canal back in 1999, “They attacked the sprats, which were the main food source for the sturgeons and seals.”

The world’s largest inland body of water with no natural connection to open waters, the unique Caspian Sea has sometimes been classified as a lake, making its legal status murky. According to Article 123 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, whatever the five littoral states agree on will be considered law.

Iran and the Soviet Union once shared the resources of the Caspian Sea. However, following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent emergence of the new nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, it became necessary to clarify its legal standing. In recent years, close to 50 meetings of technical experts and four between heads of state have been held and a number of environmental and security cooperation agreements signed between the littoral states. However, none have yet resulted in a consensus over the Caspian Sea’s legal status.

In a memorandum of understanding signed at the end of the third Caspian summit in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on Nov. 18, 2010, the littoral states agreed to a five-year ban on the fishing of sturgeons. This ban was prolonged for an additional two years on May 29, 2015, at the 35th session of the Commission on Aquatic Bioresources of the Caspian Sea in St. Petersburg.

In Kahrom’s telling, these agreements have not been fully implemented. Kahrom told Al-Monitor, “Under international law, these fish can be harvested at the age of 9, when their eggs have turned into caviar. Thus, fishing nets that have the appropriate mesh size for 9-year-old fish should be used. However, if you travel along the different coasts of the Caspian Sea, you will see restaurants and cafes on the shorelines that are serving sturgeons as young as 2, 3 or 4 years old.”

The declining sturgeon population and the ban on their fishing has also meant a downward trend for Iran’s caviar exports. According to a 2010 report published by the semi-official ISNA news agency, Iran’s caviar exports plunged from 38 tons in the Iranian year 1383 (March 2004-March 2005) to just 344 kilograms (758 pounds) in the first 10 months of the Iranian year 1388 (March 2009-March 2010). To turn things around, the Iran Fisheries Organization attempted to increase the sturgeon population by breeding and then releasing them into the Caspian Sea. However, Arsalan Ghasemi, director of Iran’s Cooperative Aquatic Production, Farming, and Exports Union, has said that these measures have been unsuccessful due to a lack of “strategic vision.”

In a June 2015 interview with the Iranian judiciary's official news website, Mizan, Ghasemi lamented the downward trend, saying, “At the moment, we are under the delusion that the caviar industry belongs to Iran, while countries such as China, Spain, South Korea, Uruguay, Hungary and many others have entered the caviar-production business.”

Meanwhile, Hassan Salehi, head of the Iran Fisheries Organization, spoke last week about the wide gap between Iran’s production of caviar from sturgeons and that of other countries. In May last year, Salehi announced that 2 tons of farmed caviar had been produced in Iran in the previous Iranian year (March 2015-March 2016), adding that half of it had been exported, generating $1.7 million. Al-Monitor unsuccessfully attempted to interview officials at the organization to get exact figures on the country’s caviar exports.

Environmental pollution is not only endangering aquatic life in the Caspian Sea, but also threatening the well-being of the estimated 15 million Iranians living along its coastlines. Kahrom’s advice for those living on its shores and for visiting tourists is to avoid places where rivers flow into the Caspian “because these rivers bring all sorts of pollutants with them.” He added to Al-Monitor, “If you fly over [the northern province of] Mazandaran in a small plane, you will see that it is muddy where the river empties into the sea. But a few kilometers away, the water becomes blue. I think that if they are wise, the sturgeons should also stay away from these areas.”

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