TBY talks to M. Ahadpur Khangah, Chairman of Caspian Fish Co, on the Azerbaijani fishing industry, preserving sturgeon stocks, and the caviar business.
TBY How has Caspian Fish Co contributed to the development of the fishing industry in Azerbaijan since it was established in 2001?
H. AHADPUR KHANGAH Caspian Fish Co is the leading company in the fishing industry in Azerbaijan as well as the Caspian region as a whole. Our contribution to the development of this industry, and especially the caviar segment, is palpable in terms of raising standards, improving processing capacities, and exporting Azerbaijani products to other international markets. We have come a long way since we started operations in 2001. For example, back then Azerbaijani caviar stood fourth among the top five in the world, and nowadays I can proudly say—and our customers can prove this—that we stand equally at number one with Iran. Also, Caspian Fish Co has introduced a higher level of technology at the processing stage, and therefore we have contributed to raising the quality and variety of the assorted products available in the market, and adapted our products to the different markets we are active in. In 2001, 99% of the available fish in the market were sold whole, and customers could not buy their fish in smaller portions. Today, however, there are a wide variety of fish products, and Caspian Fish Co has positively contributed to this evolution within the market.
What are your overall processing capacities?
Caspian Fish Co can process 120 tons of fish per day. Our company also produces poultry feed from the non-edible fish scraps left over, as these contain a host of important nutrients needed for poultry nutrition. Our processing facilities are equipped with the latest technology and European machinery, mostly sourced from Germany and France. Such machines can process 120 fish per minute, or two fish per second, and they take the tail, head, skin, and bones off, leaving behind only the clean fillets. Caspian Fish Co is not only the biggest processing factory in Azerbaijan, but also the largest in the Caspian region.
How would you asses the state of the caviar segment in Azerbaijan, and what measures is Caspian Fish Co implementing for the preservation of sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea?
Unfortunately, illegal fishing activity in the Caspian Sea has badly damaged the presence of the sturgeon family, which is now close to extinction. However, the situation is beginning to improve. In 2011 the five littoral states on the Caspian Sea were given quotas in order to preserve sturgeon stocks in the area and promote a future increase in the population of this extremely important fish. Caspian Fish Co is heavily committed to the preservation of the sturgeon family in the Caspian Sea, and for that reason, three years ago, we decided to finance and develop a sturgeon farm on the banks of the Kura River, near the Mingachevir area. The future development of that farm will enable us to produce about 200 million fingerlings, and Caspian Fish Co plans to introduce around 15 million fingerlings into the Caspian Sea every year. We will only take between 2 million and 3 million of them to keep at our farm, and we are hoping to have our own sturgeon stocks in four years time. In that regard, and in terms of future processing prospects, caviar usually is 10% of the weight of the fish. If we have a processing capacity of 100 tons of fish, this will yield us 10 tons of caviar. At the same time, we are planning to introduce the meat of male sturgeons into the market. Caviar is a very rich and important piece of Azerbaijan’s heritage, and this important initiative is a part of Caspian Fish Co’s commitment to promote this valuable heritage. We cannot sit back and watch the tradition of catching sturgeon, which dates back 2,000 years in Azerbaijan, just die off. In that sense, the government has always supported Caspian Fish Co, especially in terms of its caviar production and preservation plans.
What role do domestic demand and exports play in your overall business activity?
Caspian Fish Co only exports caviar to foreign markets, and every year we have certain quotas to comply with. We always successfully meet the annual quotas, and our biggest customers have traditionally been European countries. However, we have also sold on several occasions to the US, Japan, and other countries that could not complete their quotas. Our caviar farming development project will strengthen our position in the market, allowing us to raise our export figures in three to four years. In the future we will export caviar worldwide, and we will also start exporting sturgeon meat. The reason for that is that the taste of our caviar will be different from that of the usual caviar that comes from other aquaculture facilities. Our farm on the Kura River is taking advantage of the qualities of the river water to breed sturgeon in very similar conditions to those of their wild cousins, the taste of which is usually far richer than that found in farmed sturgeon. We believe that the natural conditions in which we are developing our sturgeon in the Mingachevir area will make our caviar, and by extension Azerbaijani caviar as a whole, the tastiest in the world.
What role can such a variety of caviar play in promoting Azerbaijan abroad?
Over the years, we have noticed an ongoing trend among our caviar customers; regardless of the so-called origin of the caviar they purchased, it has often been repackaged without even stating its true Azerbaijani origin. Therefore, the name of our country has not been developed and promoted enough in this field. However, we are working on addressing this situation and leveraging Azerbaijan’s position as a leading country in terms of caviar production and product quality. Caviar has contributed importantly to the development of the country, but it has much more to offer in the future.
What is your general outlook for the fishing industry in Azerbaijan for 2012?
Nowadays, we live in a world that has become health conscious, and the healthiest meal people can have is fish. Therefore, I am sure that this fact will contribute to increase demand for fish not only in Azerbaijan, but in many other countries, too. In the future, Caspian Fish Co will grow along with this trend.
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