JUST KEEP SWIMMING

Azerbaijan 2012 | AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: AQUACULTURE

At a time when the many varieties of Caspian Sea fish are in high demand, the protection of aquaculture resources is of growing importance.

For 2,000 years, fishermen around the Caspian have hunted after the sturgeon, a fish used to produce one of the world's most prized delicacies; caviar. Growing demand for the product has threatened the species, and the family of fish that provides more than 80% of the world's caviar production is now facing extinction. Many fisherman depend on the Caspian Sea and its freshwater basins, which are home to almost 100 fish varieties, for income and survival. As the demand for fish products grows, both government and private entities are working to preserve the industry.

In its most recent move to protect the sturgeon fishing tradition, the government implemented a ban on sturgeon fishing in November 2011. The ban follows the sharp decline in wild sturgeon species and has sparked the establishment of fisheries dedicated to the natural and artificial production of the fish. The Ministry reported that domestic hatcheries released 434.2 million fingerlings of different fish species, including 20.1 million fingerlings of sturgeon, 175,000 salmon fries, and 414 million other species of fish into the Kura River, the Caspian Sea, and a number of lakes and ponds. The government spent €1.78 million on the protection of the fish breeding and food industry in 2011, up marginally on the €1.75 million allocated in 2010. Moreover, the government introduced new legislation in the form of 19 acts and 54 protocols regarding aquaculture in the country, and demonstrated its conviction by handing out more that 38,000 violation notices over the past two years.

Azerbaijan is leading conservation efforts on a larger scale by attracting attention to the issue across the Caspian region. To raise awareness, Baku hosted the 32nd meeting of the Commission on Aquatic Bio-resources of the Caspian Sea on December 14, 2011. The meeting was an opportunity for the littoral countries to discuss the assignment of fishing quotas, the artificial increase of the fish population and protection of fish resources, and the presentation of reports on the current situation. Although a Caspian-wide agreement concerning sturgeon fishing has not been decided upon, Azerbaijan generally supports a 10-year moratorium on hunting the species, arguing that sturgeon lay eggs as late as eight to 10 years in their lifespan. A follow-up meeting of the Commission is set to be held in March 2012.

In 2011, 141 legal enterprises and individuals operated in accordance with the government's fishing regulations. The total catch included 485 tons of sprats, 152 tons of herring, 139 tons of mullet, 72 tons of bream, and 82 tons of kutum, according to the State Statistical Committee for the Republic of Azerbaijan (Azstat). Fishermen were paid an average of AZN19,400 ($24,600) a year for their work, and total fish production in the country reached 45,315 tons at 5.1 kilograms per capita. The price of live fish registered 8.9% growth in February 2012, compared to the same period the previous year. The industry is worth €27.6 million, and operates along more than 870 kilometers of Caspian coastline. In March 2012, the price of carp weighed in at around €6 per kilogram.

The European Research Council issued a report stating that the fishing industry in Azerbaijan suffers from low competitiveness, lack of export direction, and technical issues that negatively affect production volumes and quality of the product. In order to improve market efficiency, Azerbaijan needs to encourage more competition and reduce the cost for fish transportation and storage.

One company spearheading the positive growth of the industry is Caspian Fish Co, the largest processing factory in the region. With the goal of increasing exports by three or four times in the coming years, the Caspian Fish Co is dedicated to the preservation of the industry and expansion of its product portfolio. The factory is capable of processing 120 fish per minute, or two fish per second. Its Chairman, M. Ahadpur Khangah, told TBY that the company “has introduced a higher level of technology at the processing stage, contributed to raising the quality and variety of the assorted products available in the market, and adapted our products to the different markets in which we are active." This business strategy will not only invite competition, but has also greatly contributed to the evolution of the sector.

The production of fish is based mainly along the Caspian Sea coastline and the Kura River. The largest plants are located at the mouth of Kura River, including the Banka fish facility. There are also processing factories in operation in Hovsan, Neftchala, Khudat, as well as at the Mingachevir Reservoir. Fish are also farmed at Sarysu and Hajigabul lakes. Although the beginnings of the aquaculture industry may seem late to some, for the sturgeon to survive, these facilities will be essential.