Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Sunday, 18 October 2009 13:18 UK

Azerbaijan caviar protection bid

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Baku

A worker packs Caspian sea caviar into tins at an official production plant at Bandar Turkman, Iran (Archive)
The Caspian's caviar stocks are under threat, environmentalists claim.

Environmental groups in Azerbaijan say the government is not doing enough to tackle the illegal over-fishing of caviar stocks in the Caspian Sea.

The Social Ecologist Agency say local caviar-bearing beluga sturgeon are being decimated by illegal fishing.

The group is launching an intensive national education programme and plans to repopulate the Caspian by releasing a million baby sturgeon into the sea.

In Azerbaijan, the price of beluga caviar starts at $1,000 per kilogram.

For centuries, black caviar has been extracted from sturgeon, which live primarily in the Caspian Sea. Only for the last decade or so has the fish been listed as an endangered species.

But an improvement to the monitoring of Caspian fish stocks allowed a ban on catching Sturgeon to be partially lifted in 2007, prompting an outcry from ecologists.

Now, with prices of caviar rising astronomically, one of the most prominent environmental lobby groups in Azerbaijan plans to visit every school and village along its coastline - to deter people from taking part in illegal fishing.

Black market fishing

The director of the Social Ecological Agency, Elchin Sardarov, says the problem exists "because there are too many small fishermen who are not registered".

"In order to try to earn a living the smaller unregistered fishermen simply take the caviar to the black market and sell it illegally.

"More and more people are doing it and not enough is done to stop it," Mr Sardarov asserts.

Protecting the Sturgeon here is complicated because the Caspian Sea is accessible to four other countries: Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.


Secondly, illegal poaching is a lucrative business.

The Azerbaijani coastal police say they issue fines to anyone caught poaching and that they have managed to confiscate 38kg (84lb) of illegally caught caviar this year.

But that, says Mr Sardarov, is not enough.

And it is the reason why he and his agency have taken matters into their own hands.

In addition to the education programme, the Social Ecological Agency plans a mass release of baby sturgeon into the Caspian later this year - in an effort to provide caviar for the next generation.

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