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Waters of Peace: Treasures of the Caspian Sea

Under the sponsorship of UNESCO/IOC (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission) and the five littoral nations of the Caspian Sea, The Cousteau Society/Equipe Cousteau undertook a three-month expedition to the region. Flying the flag of the International Year of the Ocean, the Cousteau ship Alcyone explored the entirety of the sea.  Stated goals of the mission were to produce a film and to draw up an accounting of the resources of the Caspian Sea. Focus was on three primary natural resources: fossil fuels, sturgeons and wetlands. We were able to evaluate, explore and document on film these three treasures of the Caspian Sea in order to illustrate and analyze what is at stake for the Caspian in the present and future.

The Caspian Sea: the world’s largest inland sea
Until the Pliocene epoch, five million years ago, the Caspian Sea was connected to both the Black Sea and the Aral Sea. In recent times, the surface area of the Caspian Sea has varied between 140,000 and 150,000 square miles, taking into account its fluctuating sea level. Its length north to south is about 750 miles.
The average depth of the water is about 650 feet. It ranges from less than 65 feet in the northern end to a maximum of more than 3,000 feet in the southern. The volume of the Caspian is roughly 20,000 cubic miles.
The salinity of the water varies enormously. It ranges from a concentration of 10 ppt (parts per thousand) in the north to 20 ppt in the south. In the Gulf of Kara-Bogaz, salinity rises to 300 ppt.
The Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan share more than 4,000 miles of shoreline lying 85-90 feet below sea level. Approximately 12 million people are scattered unevenly among three different types of landscape. In the north, wetlands occupy the entire region from Daghestan, Russia, to Atyrau in Kazakhstan. Mountains, bordered by a piedmont region and low alluvial plains, extend north from Azerbaijan to the extreme eastern edge of Iran. Finally, rocky plateaus and steppe-like desert plains lie along the eastern edge of the Caspian.
The primary tributaries that feed the Caspian Sea are the Volga (with an average flow of 280,000 cubic feet per second) in Russia; the Ural, and the Emba in Kazakhstan; the Kura in Azerbaijan; the Safid in Iran and the Atrek on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan. All by itself, the Volga contributes 80 percent of the water that flows into the Caspian. The watershed of this largest inland sea covers a surface area equivalent to ten times the size of Germany, or 1.4 million square miles. The Volga basin alone accounts for 38 percent of the watershed.

Sturgeons
Best-known product of the area, the different species of sturgeon that populate the Caspian Sea were a plentiful resource at the beginning of the twentieth century, plentiful with regard to their biological diversity and to the number of fish caught. Then, approximately 40,000 tons of Beluga, Sevruga and Ossetra sturgeons were caught each year. Today’s numbers are shocking: officially, only 4,000 tons of sturgeon were caught in 1997. Such a drastic decline has resulted in all species of sturgeons being protected under the provisions of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as of April 1, 1998. To counter the over-fishing of sturgeon, four of the five littoral countries have resorted to hatcheries. It is estimated that 80 percent of the current population of sturgeons comes from fish farms.
There are three causes of this drastic decline in sturgeon stocks. They are river engineering (dams and diversions), over-fishing and pollution. No one of these can be labeled the primary culprit. They all entail damaging consequences and, an essential point, they are each attacking the resource from a different angle.

River engineering
The loss of spawning grounds to dam construction and other projects has reduced not just the number of sturgeons but also the genetic diversity of the native species. It must be added that, in the medium term, this diversity may be functionally reduced.
As an example, the construction of the dam at Volgograd has made it impossible for 99 percent of Beluga, 89 percent of the Ossetra and 84 percent of the Sevruga sturgeon to reach their spawning grounds in the Volga River. Although hatcheries may be able to supplement population numbers with generic sturgeon, they cannot compensate for the resultant loss of genetic diversity.
Currently, of all the major tributaries flowing to the Caspian, only the Ural is still free of such engineering. It is important to support the efforts of those countries that are boosting sturgeon populations with hatcheries but it is absolutely essential that more natural reproduction be insured.
The Kura River in Azerbaijan used to produce 50 percent of the caviar from the Caspian at the turn of the century; now, not a single sturgeon swims in it. The projects that block the Kura must be addressed but, even more, everything possible must be done to allow the Ural to continue to serve as a natural spawning ground.

Pollution
Whether it arises from industrial and domestic effluents, from oil exploitation or from agriculture, pollution is threatening not just genetic diversity and the number of sturgeon but also the quality of the fish, which could pose threats to human health.
For a number of years, the decline of economic activity in the area surrounding the Caspian has had the beneficent consequence of reducing the amount of toxic waste. Nonetheless, this generalization must not belie the fact that hot spots of pollution exist in the sea, notably the pollutants borne by the Volga and those produced by oil spills.
As always, reducing wastes is technically possible but it requires financial investments that are, more often than not, substantial. Still such applications must be developed because toxic elements are not diluted in a closed sea as they would be in an open expanse of water. Waste reduction must be encouraged along the Volga as well as in industrial sites and coastal towns and cities. Cleaning up effluents is a task that will take at least a decade to accomplish.

Over-Fishing
Countries bordering the Caspian have already taken legal, technological, scientific and political steps to address over-fishing. These have been good efforts and it may well be that, without them, the sturgeon would have completely disappeared from the Caspian Sea, as is the sad case in the Aral Sea. It is estimated that illegal catches of sturgeon currently equal the amount of fish taken legally under quotas. Poaching is a problem everywhere in the Caspian, from Volgograd to southern Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Only in Iran is this a very minor activity.
To stop poaching in the Caspian necessarily entails socio-economic solutions. First of all, the categories of poachers in the Caspian must be defined. There are "weekend" fishers who catch fish occasionally and just for their personal consumption. Then there are those who, for generations, have been fishermen and nothing else and who continue to catch sturgeon when they are excluded from the legal fishery. Thirdly, there are the "new" fishers who have taken up poaching because they have no other occupation. In these two latter categories, a further division can be made between those who poach to survive and those who fish illegally for profit.
Countries that adhere to the provisions of CITES (which Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have not yet signed but whose rules they respect) have taken a step forward in curtailing the export trade in sturgeon that engenders profits. Obviously regulations and sanctions on illegal traffic must be implemented throughout the Caspian. A cohesive political will is the only way to apply measures that have already been adopted.
Solutions for fishers who sell their illegal catch in local markets are much more sensitive because they touch on socio-economic issues in communities. In any case, they would need to include legalizing some of this practice in order to account for the catch in quotas without impoverishing people who are already among the very poor. They would include conversion programs, which would require financing, a stricter system for enforcement and sanctions, and education and awareness programs.

Petroleum
Oil and gas deposits in the Caspian basin represent 3-15 percent of the world’s reserves. Future production is in question because, at this time, only 30 percent of the seabed has been explored. Oil and gas are non-renewable resources and reserves should last another hundred years.
Fossil fuels are the primary resource of the Caspian in monetary terms. This wealth is so colossal that there is not single interested party who is not present in the region now, involved either in the extraction or the transportation of fuel to the international market.
Oil pollution in the Caspian is serious but limited in scope, specifically to the area around Baku, and it derives from obsolete installations. It seems of prime importance that environmental impact studies be carried out before any new deposits are developed and that strict standards be established. It Is imperative that the exploitation of new deposits not cause further damage to aquatic ecosystems. Technological methods are available and the decision to use them depends on political commitment and financial means.

Wetlands
The entire northern arc of the Caspian is comprised of wetlands. Globally, wetlands are among the most endangered ecosystems. Their value is not seen as marketable so it is tempting to eliminate them in order to provide spaces that more readily turn a profit.
Information acquired over the past twenty years has shown how vital these areas—which can include swamps, marshes, pools, lagoons, deltas, estuaries and alluvial plains—are from an environmental point of view as well as an economic one. Wetlands furnish shelter for birds and many aquatic species that live in the open water. Populations of birds find vital refuges for their migration and reproduction. The exceptional primary productivity of wetlands provides abundant food for fish. Reeds help purify water. These few examples merely hint at the many functions of these ecosystems that are absolutely vital to the balance of fauna and flora, of hydrological resources and humans.
This immense corridor, centered on the Volga delta, is unique in Europe. To over-simplify, it is an huge water treatment plant that covers more than 600 miles, and that can also shelter and feed diverse and numerous populations. Quite simply it is one of the main life-insurance policies for life in the Caspian Sea.
Russia recognized this when, in 1919, it established its first national preserve in the Volga delta. This preserve is part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere network of reserves but, unfortunately, it is microscopically small. It is of major importance that, as a precaution, a plan be drawn up to protect the entirety of these wetlands and even extend protection along the Ural. Human activities and development projects must be kept compatible with the preservation of this ecosystem.

Pollution
It serves little purpose to list all the pollutants that affect the Caspian because it is affected by all kinds. They affect the water quality and can affect also human health, as well as plants and animals.
The Volga is the leader among the rivers that drain enormous amounts, hundreds of millions of tons, of toxic waste into the Caspian: diffused, telluric, accidental, chronic, etc. There is a complete range of pollutants.
The bordering countries are well aware of this threatening situation. The quality of the Caspian’s waters is far from acceptable and only regional measures can improve it.
At this point, there is another disquieting fact that must be noted. Cousteau expeditions always involve interaction with local populations and the ship’s doctor often initiates such contacts. In the course of doing examinations, he encountered a surprising frequency of clinically observed swellings in the thyroid area, indicative of goiters, which diagnosis was later confirmed. A high incidence of such symptoms throughout the Turkmenbashi region, even among children, has also been reported by others.
In this region, on the border between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, further information received indicates an unusually high frequency of physical anomalies or multiple deformities. These observations raise a number of questions:
Is there a significantly high frequency of thyroid problems in this region?
Is there a significantly high frequency of other medical problems, such as leukemia?
Are multiple deformities more numerous in the region?
These disturbing facts and questions cannot go unanswered. The popular theory holds that the cause of the goiters is sunshine but this is not very credible. Could it not more plausibly be other kinds of radiation? In other words, did the expedition team encounter people who have been exposed to nuclear radiation? Are there one or more persistent sources of radioactive contamination, either airborne or in foodstuffs?
Light must be shed on these issues. And to accomplish that, there must be investigations.

Sea-level change
Beyond dealing with the problems of pollution and natural resource exploitation that it faces, the Caspian Sea is also seeing major changes in the volume of its water. The level of the sea has varied continuously over the decades. From the turn of the century to 1977, sea level fell more than a dozen feet, which means that nearly 250 cubic miles of water evaporated—four times the annual flow of the Volga. The bottom land exposed by the retreating sea was quickly colonized by human beings. Whether they believed that the phenomenon was permanent, or they simply forgot past variations in sea level, villages and towns settled onto this new land. Even a nuclear power plant was built dangerously close to the newly dry area.
Then, beginning in 1978, water began, little by little, to re-conquer the exposed earth. As sea level rose, the Caspian began flooding the buildings that had been constructed in defiance of common sense. For better or worse, since 1995, the rise has stopped and initial measurements indicate a new retreat of the water, which the Cousteau team was able to confirm.
These fluctuations are linked to the flow of the Volga River, which represents 80 percent of all the water drained from hundreds of rivers and streams into the Caspian. Thus the weather of the entire drainage basin of the Volga influences the level of the Caspian Sea.
Although these variations are not due to human activities, they may be amplified by them, through diversions of rivers for irrigation, dams, etc. Land management will dictate whether disastrous consequences will, or will not, result from these fluctuations.

Conclusions
The Caspian Sea is at a critical stage. Its resources are in danger but it would be over-stating the case to suggest that the situation is catastrophic.
The drastic decrease in sturgeon stocks is extremely worrisome. Action must be taken on the three causes of the decline—engineering of rivers, pollution, over-fishing—each of which has different effects on genetic diversity, health and the quantity of fish. The Ural, the last major natural spawning ground for sturgeons, must be able to continue this vital function in order to insure genetic diversity.
Oil and gas development will stabilize or destabilize the region and is by far the major economic stake in the Caspian. The profits that will be realized from petroleum must not come at the cost of environmental and social degradation. There are existing methods to develop resources without harm and implementing them only depends on the political will to do so.
If oil and caviar are the "black gold" of the Caspian, then its exceptional wetlands are the "emerald" in its crown. Experience teaches that the perception of wetlands as having no marketable value has pushed people to destroy them systematically. It is therefore of great importance to develop a plan that will preserve the entirety of the wetlands undamaged.
The multiple and assorted pollutants that afflict the Caspian basin are substantial. Solutions will not be simple and will encompass technological, financial and legal measures, in addition to education and public awareness and political will. There is also concern about the question mark that tags the origin of the pathologies observed in southern Kazakhstan and northern Turkmenistan. Investigations must determine whether they are due to exposure to radioactivity and, if so, if the source(s) is still active.
Finally, the near-exact correlation established by scientists between variations in the Caspian’s sea level and the flow of the Volga almost exclude other hypotheses. It is still important to develop measures to prevent damaging consequences of the fluctuations. Newly exposed lands should not be used for settlements or infrastructure.
It is evident that any measures that are taken will be effective only if they are taken at a regional level. The Caspian Sea is one inseparable ecological unit and the five littoral countries can only benefit from cooperation in managing the use of its resources. They have demonstrated their awareness of the need for cooperative responsibility by starting on a (CEP) project with the European Union’s Tacis Programme, the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank. The objective now is to gather around one table all the partners and decision-makers of the bordering countries with UNESCO to establish ways to carry out the proposed solutions.  (Caspian Sea Expedition: The sturgeon fishery)

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