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Will Caspian oil wipe out the sturgeon?
Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Nezavisimaya gazeta
By Yevgeny Solovyov

The world community and the Russian government believe that one of the main reasons for the sharp decline in the sturgeon catch in the Caspian Sea is poaching. Practiced on a scale that exceeds the official catch more than tenfold, poaching costs our country some $300 million a year.

This year, under pressure from the standing committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan made a compromise decision to halt commercial sturgeon fishing until the end of December. This is only a temporary measure, and it will not decide the fate of sturgeon in the Caspian, in the view of Prof. Vladimir Lukyanenko, Doctor of Biology, Russian Federation Honored Scientist and member of the Russian Ecological Academy. Prof. Lukyanenko, who lives in Yaroslavl, has been studying sturgeon since 1962. From 1962 to 1979 he headed the laboratory for environmental physiology and biochemistry of fish at the USSR's Central Research Institute for Sturgeon Fisheries, the only such institution in the world. In his opinion, the biggest threats to this unique fish are oil drilling in the Caspian Sea, poor environmental conditions and the collapse of the USSR's unified system of fish hatcheries. In an interview with NG, he talked about the results of his research and his proposals for saving the sturgeon.

Yaroslavl -- Question. -- How has the number of sturgeon in the Caspian changed in recent years? . . .

Answer. -- . . . Over a period of not quite 10 years, the Caspian sturgeon catch declined from 15,700 [metric] tons in 1990 to 2,900 tons in 1995 and 900 tons in 1999 (without counting Iran). Russia's sturgeon catch in the Volga-Caspian basin fell from 8,100 tons in 1991 to 540 tons in 1999, a 15-fold decline. . . .

Q. -- Why do you consider oil drilling the biggest disaster for Caspian sturgeon?

A. -- The problem of oil pollution in the Caspian Sea is becoming worse every year because of the expansion of offshore oil drilling in the southern and central Caspian, as well as the development of oil and gas resources on the coast of the northern Caspian. The low level of oil production technology, the lack of effective ways and means to localize oil spills caused by rather frequent accidents at offshore wells and during exploratory drilling operations, and the constant problems associated with the unloading of oil tanks at drilling sites in stormy weather -- all these things cause huge amounts of oil to end up in the sea, amounts that are difficult to calculate with any degree of accuracy. One view holds that more than a million tons of oil gets into the Caspian every year from various sources. As a result, huge areas of the sea's surface are covered by oil slicks.

In the southern and central Caspian, one quite often finds enormous, drifting oil slicks that cover as much as 800 square kilometers, in which fishing -- even sprat fishing -- is impossible. The intensive pollution of the Caspian Sea by oil and petroleum products has caused a dramatic deterioration in the habitat, feeding and migration conditions of fish belonging to various ecological groups, and especially the most valuable species, the various types of sturgeon.

Today, in connection with the further expansion of offshore oil production in the central Caspian and, most importantly, in connection with the continuing development of oil and gas fields along the northern Caspian coast (the Karachaganak gas condensate field and the Tengiz oil and gas field), where the resources lie deep underground and are characterized by unusually high pressure and an aggressive chemical composition that includes up to 24% hydrogen sulfide, sturgeon populations in the northern Caspian face a genuine threat of being wiped out. The region where the western Kazakhstan deposits I just mentioned are being developed is the northeast Caspian; back in 1968, in a resolution of the USSR Council of Ministers titled "On Measures to Prevent Pollution of the Caspian Sea," it was proposed to designate this area as a "protected zone in which future development would be limited to fishing and water transportation." But this recommendation, solidly backed up by the findings of ecologists and environmental scientists, was ignored. As soon as the fields began to be developed, it was clear that the scientists' fears had been justified.

In 1987, as a result of an accident at an installation belonging to the USSR Ministry of the Petroleum Industry's Tengizneftegaz [Tengiz Petroleum and Gas] Production Association, 12 million cubic meters of groundwater containing 300 times the maximum allowable concentration of petroleum products was released into the protected part of the northern Caspian from a single oil field! Plans to drill for oil in the northern Caspian itself pose an especially great environmental danger. Although oil industry executives recognize the seriousness of the environmental problems confronting them, they think that with present-day oil production technology, offshore drilling can be done in compliance with all environmental standards. That's probably true in theory, but one can't ignore the vast store of counterevidence provided by Azerbaijan's development of the southern Caspian shelf. From 1941 through 1958, when the Neftyaniye Kamni field was being developed, artificial underwater gushers (that is, uncontrolled flows of oil to the sea's surface) formed at 37 wells. At some of the wells, the gushers kept flowing for anywhere from several days to two years, and the amount of oil discharged during that time ranged from 100 to 500 tons a day! . . . I have no doubt that oil drilling in the northern Caspian would inevitably destroy the wealth of fish, including sturgeon, in that unique body of water. You see, the total volume of water in the shallow northern Caspian is no more than 400 cubic kilometers. That's only half a percent of the amount of water in the entire Caspian, which is about 80,000 cubic kilometers. Ichthyologists have calculated that just one major underwater oil gusher, flowing for several months, could destroy all the fish that feed in the northern Caspian. An area that serves as a feeding grounds for valuable species of fish, especially sturgeon, cannot be used for oil drilling at the same time.

Q. -- Do you think that oil pipelines potentially pose just as much danger to sturgeon as drilling does?

A. -- The construction of oil and gas pipelines linking the eastern and western shores of the Caspian Sea poses just as great a danger to the fish and their environment. I'm talking about the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan pipeline, which will link Turkmenbashi and Baku, and the Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan pipeline, linking Aktau and, once again, Baku. Both pipelines will run along the floor of the Caspian Sea. The planners are evidently not bothered by the fact that the Caspian is located in a seismic zone and its floor is subject to the formation of volcanic mud cones. Yet the laying of hundreds of kilometers of underwater pipeline, especially if it follows the shortest possible route, poses a huge potential risk of large-scale oil pollution of the Caspian Sea.

Q. -- What measures should Russia take to save the sturgeon?

A. -- In light of the new political realities, it has to be recognized that the Caspian Sea's overall fish stocks and its stocks of sturgeon in particular are an asset that belongs jointly to the peoples of Russia and the new Caspian states. Way back in 1992, Russia proposed signing an international agreement or convention on sturgeon. It was based on the principle that an unconditional ban should be placed on commercial sturgeon fishing in the southern, central and northern Caspian Sea. Today, almost nine years after the "Agreement on the Preservation and Use of Caspian Sea Bioresources" was drafted, it still hasn't been signed. And throughout all those years, devastating illegal sturgeon fishing has continued against the backdrop of never-ending negotiations. The economic losses that Russia has suffered during that period due to the decrease in the amount of sturgeon caught, processed and sold come to about 1.5 trillion rubles a year.

Today, in order to save the Caspian sturgeon, some very radical measures will have to be taken. First, there must be a temporary moratorium on commercial fishing by all the Caspian states, including Iran. Right now such a ban is in effect until the end of the year. Second, the international Agreement on the Preservation and Use of Caspian Sea Bioresources must be signed without delay. Of course, that is only a first step, but other steps can't be taken without it. The second step would be for all the Caspian states to impose a five- to seven-year moratorium on commercial sturgeon fishing in the sea and in rivers, allowing fish to be caught only for purposes of research and reproduction. Without waiting for these coordinated moves, Russia must quickly reinstate a government monopoly on the export of black caviar, which has been a strategic raw material for a long time now. Also, we need to hasten the adoption of a special federal law "On Sturgeon Species in Russia." The third step is to do everything possible to prevent the northern Caspian shelf from being developed for oil and gas production.

Another thing that must be done to increase the sturgeon population is to renovate existing fish hatcheries and build new ones in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran so that, eventually, up to 150 million healthy young sturgeon can be released into the Caspian Sea every year. We all have to recognize that the fate of the Caspian sturgeon is hanging by a thread, and any further delay will result in irreparable harm.


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