Total sturgeon output has declined from 500 tons in 2004 to 416 tons at present, marking a decline of 17 percent..
The fishing industry has acquired a prominent economic profile by adopting commercial methods to increase fish production and exports. According to Food and Agriculture Organization, fish production in the world stands at over 130 million tons per annum. In addition to commercial fishing, more than 40 million tons are also produced in aquaculture units.
According to Hamshahri Online, Iran has more than 440,000 types of marine resources due to its long southern and northern shorelines along the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Large fisheries along Iran’s southern and northern shorelines process a variety of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. However, a very small number of species dominate the production of most domestic fisheries. Some of these species are herring, cod, tuna, flounder, mullet, shrimp and salmon. Many other species are also caught in smaller numbers.
Under the Fourth National Economic Development Plan (2005-10), fish production is expected to reach 487,000 tons. However, over the past few years, it has become increasingly evident that commercial fishing and fish farms are facing severely depleted stocks and a host of other problems.
Currently, the main concern of officials is the severe reduction of fish resources. Part of the problem pertains to the Caspian Sea pollution and its exacerbation by the surrounding areas.
According to Seyyed Mohammad Mojabi, deputy head of Fishing and Ports Department at Iran Fisheries Organization, all types of fish take to the rivers for fertilization and reproduction, except kilka and a few other species.
However, illegal and unregulated sand deposits caused by construction activities; sewage disposal; urban, industrial and agricultural waste disposal; water blockages and several other factors have blocked the way of migratory fish to the upper parts of these rivers, further depleting the declining stocks.
Caspian Sea is the largest lake on earth in terms of both area and volume, with a surface area of 371,000 square kilometers and a volume of 78,200 cubic kilometers. It is a landlocked body of water bordered by Iran (Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan provinces), Russia (Dagestan, Kalmykia, Astrakhan), Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, with the Central Asian steppes to the north and east. On its eastern Turkmen shore is a large embayment, the Garabogazkol, and is connected to the Sea of Azov by the Manych Canal and the Volga-Don Canal.
The sea is estimated to be about 30 million years old and became landlocked about 5.5 million years ago. Discoveries in the Huto Cave near the town of Behshahr, Mazandaran, (Southern land of Caspian Sea) suggest human habitation of the area as early as 75,000 years ago.
The Caspian Sea holds large reserves of sturgeon, which yield eggs that are processed into caviar. The depleting stocks of fish are not limited to the poor conditions of rivers alone.
In recent years, illegal fishing and over-fishing have threatened sturgeon population to such an extent that environmentalists advocate banning sturgeon fishing completely until the reserves recover. However, prices for sturgeon caviar (each caviar-producing fish worth around 100 million rials) are so high that fishermen can afford to pay huge bribes to authorities to look the other way, making regulations in many locations ineffective. Caviar harvesting further endangers the sturgeon stocks, since it targets reproductive females.
There are several species of fish endemic to the Caspian Sea, including kutum, Caspian roach, bream, and a type of salmon. Caspian salmon is critically endangered.
Illegal fishing of Caspian salmon and sturgeon is predicted to be far more than those caught through legal channels by the state-owned fisheries. Based on the latest reports, sturgeon fishing in Caspian Sea has declined because of depleting stocks. For instance, total sturgeon output has declined from 500 tons in 2004 to 416 tons at present, marking a decline of 17 percent.
Under the Fourth National Economic Development Plan (2005-10), fish production is expected to reach 487,000 tons.
The depleting stocks of sturgeon are not because of over-fishing alone. Three major issues are affecting the sturgeon population in Caspian Sea: increasing exploration of mineral resources, over-fishing and shipping (through Russia’s Volga River and the canals connecting it to the Black Sea and Baltic Sea).
Access to the Volga River is particularly important for the landlocked states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This issue is sensitive to Russia, because this potential traffic will move through its territory. If a body of water is labeled as sea, there would be some precedents and international treaties obliging the granting of access permits to foreign vessels. If a body of water is labeled as lake, then there are no such obligations.
Environmental issues are also linked to the sea’s status and border issue.
Russia has the bulk of the former Soviet military fleet and is the most powerful military force in Caspian Sea. Some assets were recently assigned to Azerbaijan, while Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan received a very small share because they lack major port cities.
Environmental issues surrounding fishing in the Caspian Sea involve the availability of fish to be caught, over-fishing and fisheries management. Fishery conservation issues are generally considered part of marine conservation in the Caspian Sea. There is a growing disparity between the availability of fish to be caught and the human desire to catch more and more, a problem that is exacerbated by the rapidly growing fishing industries around the Caspian Sea.
As with other environmental issues, the people engaged in fishing, experts and governments are in conflict with each other, as economics dictates that fishers have to keep fishing for their livelihood while sustainable fishing demands that some fisheries must close to protect the fish population. And the government has to devise regulations for balancing its commercial interests with environmental concerns.
It is starting to be realized, however, that these three camps must work together to sustain the Caspian Sea resources, otherwise sturgeons could become extinct within the next 15 years.
Mir Soleiman Hosseini, managing director of National Union of Iran Fishing Cooperatives, says oil drilling, tanker transport, petrochemical and industrial activities and illegal, unregulated fishing have polluted the Persian Gulf waters and endangered the fish population there as well.
He went on to state that fishing in the northern and southern waters of the country are not regulated and incompatible with their reserves.
“Iran Fisheries Organization has issued unregulated fishing permits under pressure and some of them will have to be cancelled in order to give the sea the chance to recover its fish stocks and other marine species,“ he said.
Similarly, Rasoul Gharibi, a board member at the union in Bushehr province, also said illegal fishing is on the rise in the Persian Gulf waters.
“Unfortunately, many fishermen are using illegal methods to catch fish which has been outlawed across the globe, as they deplete the fish population and other rare sea species,“ he said.
With regard to illegal fishing by the fishermen of Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia along the southern waters of Iran, he said, “These fishermen enter the Iranian waters to catch fish where they are usually caught and fined, and then sent back to their countries. In retaliation, Iranian fishermen also catch fish in their territories but usually they catch less than their counterparts.“
According to Gharibi, the fish population in the southern waters of the Persian Gulf is depleting fast and the performance of Iran Fisheries Organization has not been up to the mark yet in order to bring the situation under control.
“A great deal of money is spent to boost the Caspian fish population, but little attention is paid to save the Persian Gulf fish stocks and this negligence is not limited to the fishing industry of Iran alone. Other littoral states are also not doing their bit. The good news, however, is that last year Iran took major steps to this end and only time will tell whether these efforts will help save the fish population in this region,“ he said.
High unemployment and poor economic prospects are among the main reasons behind the rise in illegal and unregulated fishing in the southern and northern waters of the country.
Gharibi noted that governments and fishing organizations across the world control the adverse impact of seasonal unemployment of fishermen by launching efficient employment schemes along the shores, whereas Iran does not have such schemes.
According to Hosseini, in the past many fishermen used to carry goods besides fishing in order to make ends meet, but now many boats are given only fishing permits.
“By issuing transportation permits to fishing boats, the country can create jobs for many unemployed fishermen during the off-seasons when there are no fish to catch,“ he said.
An important reason for the rise in illegal fishing is the weakness of organizations responsible for safeguarding the sea and its valuable resources, despite the fact that there are many coastguards across the shorelines of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
There are more than 140,000 fishermen in Iran who have to deal with a host of problems similar to their compatriots in other sectors.
Hosseini pointed out that fishing is a hazardous job and fishermen should have the right to retire earlier.
“The National Union of Iran Fishing Cooperatives has held extensive talks with affiliated organizations with regard to the early retirement of fishermen, but failed to achieve any results. Many fishing unions and cooperatives have managed to get loans from Bank Keshavarzi in the past ten years. However, many fishermen claim fishing is not profitable and, for the same reason, they are unable to pay off their debts to the banks. They are asking for reduction of bank lending rates and refinancing of their loans to be able to repay their debts,“ he said.
For instance, the fishing unions and cooperatives owed some 20 billion rials to the banks by the end of last year (March 20, 2006).
Another challenge facing the industry is middlemen activities which grab a large chunk of profits made by the fishermen. Although cooperatives try to purchase the catch, bureaucracy has prevented the sorry state of affairs from changing. As a result, the middlemen are a force to reckon with.
The only positive step taken by officials, Hosseini concluded, has been to offer insurance cover to fishermen and their boats against natural disasters, but not for their catch.
“The National Union of Iran Fishing Cooperatives has already written a letter to affiliated organizations and officials asking them to offer insurance cover for seafood products. Agriculture Insurance Fund is currently reviewing the request and has promised to give its final response in due course.“
Only time will show whether these efforts will bear fruit for the fishing industry in general and the fishermen in