By John C.K. Daly
The Caspian, a unique body of water, has been under assault since the 1991 breakup of the USSR from pollution and the subsequent development of the Caspian basin as the world’s next hydrocarbon frontier. The Caspian is the home to many unique species, including freshwater seals as well as sturgeon, the prized source of most of the world’s caviar. Both are under assault from human development.
In a bit of good news for the Caspian’s beleaguered flora and fauna, on Feb. 21 a protocol on the conservation of biological diversity of the Caspian was signed in Tehran as an addendum to the Tehran Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea signed during the visit of Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergei Donskoi to Iran. Donskoi said that Russia is interested in the development of the Tehran Convention, as it has been playing a key role in promoting regional environmental cooperation since 2003, when the Tehran Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea was developed with the assistance of the United Nations Environment Program. The Convention was signed on Nov. 4 2003 by all five of the Caspian states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.
Before 1991 the Soviet Union and Iran divided the inland sea amongst themselves. Under the 1921 Soviet-Iranian Treaty of Friendship, each had an “exclusive fishing rights in its coastal waters up to a limit of 10 nautical miles,” while the 1940 Soviet-Iranian treaty which supplemented the agreement further declared that the “parties hold the Caspian to belong to Iran and to the Soviet Union.” Needless to say, both treaties became invalid with the breakup of the USSR.
When the USSR collapsed in December 1991, the Soviet Union and Iran effectively divided the Caspian between them. Since then, four states have replaced the USSR- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan, which share a coastline with Iran.
The 143,244 square-mile Caspian is an endorheic sea – all rivers flow into it, with no egress to the open ocean. The sole entry to the Caspian is the Volga-Don Canal, under the Russian Federation’s sovereign control.
Since the December 1991 implosion of the USSR, three new nations arose in the Caspian region and contested the bilateral arrangements: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. For the past 24 years, the five nations have wrangled about how equitably to divide the Caspian’s waters and seabed, but nothing definitive has been achieved. Adding to the confusion, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) did not definitively declare whether the international law of the sea or the law of inland lakes applied to the Caspian. Russia controls the sole maritime entrance to the Caspian, the 37-mile Volga-Don Canal, built during the Stalinist era. The channel provides a link between the Volga – which empties into the Caspian – via the Don River; the Don disgorges into the Sea of Azov, a northeast corollary of the Black Sea which in turn provides Caspian littoral access via the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean.
What changed after 1991 was the Caspian basin’s sudden emergence as an energy powerhouse. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has estimated that the Caspian could contain up to 250 billion barrels of recoverable oil along with an additional 200 billion barrels of potential reserves and 9.2 trillion cubic meters of recoverable natural gas.
Amidst the ongoing disagreements, the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and even Iran have tentatively moved to develop their offshore reserves in sectors that they believe would be indisputably within their future assignations under an eventual five-state agreement. A final definitive agreement has been stymied however because Iran and the Russian Federation hold diametrically opposed positions about how to develop a Caspian consensus beyond the now moribund 1921 and 1940 treaties.
Iran steadfastly maintains that all Caspian littoral nations should receive an equitable 20 percent of the sea’s waters and seabed, while the Russian Federation has consistently maintained that the five Caspian countries should apportion the assets based on the length of their coastlines.
Under Moscow’s formula, Azerbaijan, with 259 miles of coastline, would receive 15.2 percent of the Caspian’s waters and seabed, Iran with 319 miles of coast – 18.7 percent. Kazakhstan, with 526 miles of coastline, would receive the largest share, 30.8 percent, leaving Russia with its 315 miles of shore 18.5 percent of the Caspian. Turkmenistan’s 285 miles of coast would see it receive a 16.8 percent share.
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have always supported Russia’s stance, while Turkmenistan under its mercurial President Sapamurat Niyazov until his death in December 2006 wavered between Moscow and Tehran. Niyazov’s successor, Gurbangeldy Berdymukhammeov, has cautiously moved towards supporting the Russian formulation, leaving Iran isolated.
The murkiness of the Caspian’s maritime frontiers has produced more than rhetorical clashes, most notably in July 2001, when Iran sent military aircraft and a warship to intimidate two Azerbaijani survey vessels contracted by BP into leaving the Alov-Araz-Sharg field, a site that Azerbaijan claimed was well within its national sector, which Iran disputed.
The development of the Caspian’s energy resources has negatively impacted the environment, particularly the Caspian’s aquatic crown jewel, caviar-bearing sturgeon. In the 1970s, 96 percent of all sturgeons in the world were fished from the Caspian. Since that time the number of sturgeons shrank to less than 3 percent of its numbers four decades earlier. In less than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union pollution, overfishing and poached had further decimated Caspian sturgeon stocks. In 1990 Iran exported 251 tons of Caspian caviar, but exports by 2010 declined to 4 tons.
International efforts began to focus on saving the sturgeon stocks; in 1998 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species listed sturgeon as endangered, and began regulating the sturgeon caviar trade, and in 2010, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) prohibited sturgeon fishing from the Caspian, accusing those who commit the act as criminals and smugglers.
The Persians were the first group of people to regularly consume the sturgeon eggs, believing that it enhanced the physical strength and endurance of those who ate it, and ancient Greeks imported caviar from Crimea in southern Ukraine. From the beginning, caviar was a luxury item reserved for the elite. The Romans also attributed healing and medicinal properties to caviar. Caviar first became fashionable in Europe under Pope Julius II, Michelangelo’s patron, a gourmand fond of sturgeon eggs who introduced caviar to European royalty, giving it cachet exclusivity and excellence that continues to the present day.
The interim solution to the sturgeon’s decline was to be farming, and Iran has become a leading exporter of cultivated caviar, having begun sturgeon breeding in 2002. Last August Iranian Exporters of Aquatics Association secretary-general Ali Akbar Khodaei said that in 2013 Iran exported 2,650 lbs of cultured caviar worth $816,000 in 2013, and that Iran expected exports to reach 4,000 lbs by March 21, 2015. Iran’s sturgeon farming is currently only carried out in the coastal cities of Gilan and Mazandaran provinces, but there are plans to expand production. In a nod to American gourmands, despite U.S. sanctions, imports are now permitted.
Showing a unity of purpose notably lacking in other fields, in Dec. 2013 at a meeting of the Commission for Water and Bio Resources of the Caspian Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan agreed to stop commercial fishing of sturgeons for one year and a moratorium on commercial fishing of sturgeons in the Caspian came into force on Jan. 1, 2014.
The ban was needed. In May 2013 Kazakh deputy General Prosecutor Andrey Kravchenko noted ominously, “According to Kazakhstan Agency of Applied Ecology, the sturgeon population has declined from 3 to 1.3 million over the last 3 years. That means that around 2,000 fish are killed daily. At such a rate sturgeon will be fully extinct in 4-5 years.”
While the five Caspian nations continue to disagree over hydrocarbon assets, they have shown commendable collaboration to preserving the aquatic resources of a body of water that they all share. In a time when many natural resources are in decline due to relentless exploitation, they are to be commended. For those rich capitalists who can’t wait until Caspian aquaculture takes off, there’s always the best – Iranian Almas albino caviar, a kilogram of which will set you back $25,000 or so.