Caviar is a national symbol of Azerbaijan, with a rich history linking the country to the delicacy. As a lucrative and prestigious industry for Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, measures are being taken improve its sustainability. Of the five caviar-producing states of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan was the first to ring the alarm bell and push forward a temporary moratorium on sturgeon fishing in response to declining fish numbers. Populations of wild sturgeon are under threat from overexploitation, poaching, illegal trade, habitat destruction, migratory barriers, and waterway pollution.
It was the Azeri people, then within the domain of the Persian Empire, that are thought to have been the first to have tried caviar. By the end of the 20th Century, caviar had become a major industry for Azerbaijan with exports reaching 55 tons per year at a value of approximately $55 million. Declining populations, however, saw action taken within the framework of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendices in 1997, with all species of sturgeon and paddlefish being listed. The following year CITES gave all sturgeon species Appendix II status, meaning that international trade in the delicacy requires government approval based on scientific advice.
Before talks even began on a regional moratorium, Azerbaijan was the first country to reply positively to a US call for more stringent rules on the export of beluga, the most exclusive variety of caviar in the world. It currently has restrictions on the fishing of both beluga and barbel sturgeon fish. Moreover, the country has implemented a number of measures to address the chronic issues facing the caviar industry today. As a start, the Azerbaijani government has reinforced its war on poaching and managed to confiscate some 51 kilograms of illegally caught black caviar in the first half of 2011. For its part, the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources aims to release some 15 million sturgeon fry a year into the Caspian Sea, to help build up the population. So effective has the repopulation policy been, that much of the poached sturgeon found in raids on black marketeers comes from the fry released in the past.
On the private sector side, Azerbaijan’s Caspian Fish Company plans to finance the development of caviar production in the Kura River. According to local experts, river caviar not only tastes better, but monitoring the production is also made easier because it can be done at the national level.
At the regional level, the five Caspian Sea states agreed on strict export quotas in Geneva in July 2010. Indeed, “the CITES quota system has resulted in common management objectives, as part of a concerted response to improve the state of depleted stocks,” said CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon. In a further meeting held in 2011, the five national presidents of the Caspian region agreed in principle to a moratorium on fishing, though details of the scheme are still being hammered out.
According to Azerbaijan’s Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Hüseyn Bağırov, the key lies in “promoting clarity in environmental policy and focusing on non-political issues such biodiversity and fishing”, in order to reach a regional consensus. “This will allow the development of common rules for all five countries to reach a balance between economic interests, production processes, and environmental protection.”
© The Business Year