Flying the flag of the International Year of the Ocean (1998), The Cousteau Society undertook a three-month expedition to explore the entire Caspian Sea. Stated goals of the mission were to evaluate, explore and document on film the status of the Caspian in order to illustrate and analyze what is at stake for the region in the present and future.
Study focused on three primary natural resources: fossil fuels, wetlands and sturgeons. The very symbol of the Caspian Sea, sturgeons were a plentiful resource at the beginning of the century, when approximately 40,000 tons of Beluga, Sevruga Ossetra sturgeon were caught each year. Today, the official catch is only 4,000 tons, despite three decades of effort by scientists and managers to strengthen the stocks. The Cousteau team traveled to the Volga River delta to observe the age-old fishery.
Two small boats took the team out to the fishing site where seven teams of thirty men each worked to supply five factory ships. During the day, the fishers would set out their nets and haul them in, using shore-based winches, at least fifteen times. A good haul caught about forty sturgeons at a time, mostly Sevruga and Ossetra, ranging from 2 ½ feet long to 5 feet long and 130 pounds. It seemed so easy and, in a way, it was. Following ancient instincts, the fish head up the river to reproduce, traveling a well-known migration route. Catching them couldn’t be simpler.
In the weeks spent in Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, the team learned to appreciate the economic importance of the sturgeon. It is a basic foodstuff that is simply irreplaceable. In the semi-desert areas of the eastern side, meat is much too expensive and sturgeon constitutes the main protein. The trade in caviar provides substantial financial revenues, with worldwide sales estimated at $ 500 million. For these reasons–the need for food and for money–poaching is rife.
For several decades, authorities and scientists of the littoral states have been trying to counteract the drastic decrease in sturgeon stocks. All the legal, technological, scientific and political measures that have been undertaken by the states must be praised; they are good and it may be that, without them, sturgeons would already have disappeared from the Caspian. But more must be done. Rebuilding sturgeon stocks means maintaining natural spawning areas as well as continuing the efforts in artificial propagation. Catch quotas must be fixed not just according to financial imperatives but according to scientific stock assessments, to include the take represented by poaching. Eradicating illegal fishing must include retraining, stricter monitoring and sanctions, and programs to disperse information and awareness. Pollution reduction must also be encouraged, on the rivers as well as in the littoral cities and industrial sites. The preservation of this unique treasure that is the Caspian dictates a long-term commitment.