Fish Fantasies on Azerbaijan’s Pirallahi Island
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To outsiders, the Caspian Sea may seem to be only about oil and gas, but for Mamed, a short, thin fisherman in his 50s with blue hand-tattoos and no front teeth, it’s all about the sturgeon that used to be.    

"I earned money perfectly. I thought it would always be so,” he recounts, standing near a pier jutting out into the Caspian from the Azerbaijani island of Pirallahi. “I did not even save money. I spent everything, and now we put the nets out for the night, in the morning we haul them in, and if we come across one or two fish, that’s already good."

Azerbaijan’s annual fish harvest has decreased by a staggering 96 percent since 2000 to just 739 tons, according to the State Statistical Committee.  Sprats, rather than more valuable sturgeon, make up most of the catch.

That particularly affects Pirallahi (also called Artyom). Long a celebrity of the Azerbaijani oil industry, the 12-kilometer-long island, about a two-hour bus ride from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, was once also reputed for its fish. Today, though, as a domain of the state-run energy giant SOCAR, it’s only about oil.  It also is a transportation hub, from which helicopters take oilmen to offshore platforms and boats depart to the Oil Rocks, Azerbaijan’s oldest offshore platform.

Money from Pirallahi’s energy industry has gone back into the island’s main settlement, officially a town of 17,000 people. Residents point to government-financed road construction, hospital repairs and the building of a mosque. A state-run hi-tech park is also in the works.  

 

A ferry with oil workers departs Pirallahi Island for an offshore oil field. Petroleum is the island’s economic mainstay.
It takes buses from the mainland one and a half to two hours to reach Pirallahi Island. They are old, without air conditioners, and the doors are not closed in summer time.
The local government on Pirallahi has focused on improving roads and hospitals, as well as building a mosque.
Despite the local government’s official focus on infrastructure, the basements of some residential buildings on Pirallahi are flooded.
As elsewhere in the Caucasus, residents focus on cleaning up their own living area more than public spaces.

Yet few of the island’s remaining fishing families appear to have made the transition to working in the energy sector. Instead, those interviewed are focused on the catches of yesteryear, when fish were more plentiful and fishing permits not required.

"We had our own boat. We lived very well," one 50-something hairdresser, Mrs. Ahmadova, recalls nostalgically.  “They caught sturgeon, white fish, mullet here. The beluga was so big that several men carried it, and dolma and cutlets were prepared from fish. " 

That all started to change in 1999 with the introduction of mandatory fishing permits, Ahmadova and others claim. Many islanders started moving away and giving up on fishing.

"The fish police came and made us surrender the boats," Mamed recounts. "Now, if you want to fish, you need to register a boat, get permission."

Mamed and his similarly sinewy sons, Rasul and Shahin, both in their 20s, still earn a living from the sea, but avoid discussing the details.  Like other families living on the outskirts of the town of Pirallahi, they fish because they have no other option. The amount they earn is enough to feed their families and meet basic expenses, they say.

Thirty-one-year-old Ali Ahmadov supplements his disability payments by driving a taxi between the island and the mainland.
When fishing dried up, this Pirallahi resident opened a beauty salon. Most of her clients are neighbors.
A beauty salon opened by one Pirallahi resident includes equipment from the former state beauty salon where she worked.
While the local government has cleaned or upgraded the façades of many buildings on Pirallahi, often the structures’ interiors still need repair, locals complain.

These are not fishermen who operate commercial fisheries. By law, there’s only one option for individual fishermen to fish legally – by joining the Union of Hunters and Fishermen, a club for aficionados. For 30 manats ($17.64), that year-long permit gives them the right to catch up to five kilograms of fish per day.  

No fish market exists on the island, however. Instead, locals buy fresh fish discreetly from fishermen they know.   Those fishermen keep a close watch on their supplies – in one instance, using a large Caucasian sheepdog to ward off visitors.

They have reason to be careful. Fines for illegal fishing increased this year up to twenty-fold. They now range between 2,000 to 3,000 manats ($1,176 - $1,764), an amount nearly ten times that of the average monthly agricultural wage.

While Mamed blames the oil sector for such restrictions, Telman Zeynalov, director of the non-profit National Center of Ecological Forecasting, instead cites the dwindling fish population.

 

Strangers are not welcome on one of the island’s nearly deserted, small piers.
“Apprentice” fishermen tidy up, clean and mend nets.
Small fish stuck in the nets usually go to boys as additional payment for their work.
This adolescent boy works on Pirallahi’s pier during his school vacations.

The Caspian’s population “is not reproducing naturally and, in reality, there aren't many fish businesses that would separate [farmed] fish and release them into the Sea,” Zeynalov says, citing one regional fish farm built two kilometers from the Sea.

Runoff from oil drilling, he adds, does not affect the quantity or quality of Caspian Sea fish. “It’s another matter that local residents dump their own everyday waste on the shore. You can’t do that.”

No official public data  appears to exist about the size of the fishing population or catches near Pirallahi.

The government, however, is attempting to keep Pirallahi’s fishing role alive. Work has begun on a fish farm with a projected annual yield of 75 tons of Russian sturgeon, 25 tons of sterlet (a sturgeon native to the Caspian area) and four tons of caviar, the state-run Azertag reported this July.

Salaries could be higher there, but, back on Mamed’s pier, where adolescent boys clean boats and wash and repair chains and nets, no sign exists that local fishermen are preparing to make a change.   

Using special equipment for storms and high wind, Pirallahi’s fishermen fish in the Caspian Sea nearly year-round.
Fishing nets are cast in the evening, and fishermen bring in their catch in the morning.
Many of Pirallahi’s residents reportedly left the island after fishing restrictions were introduced in the late 1990s.
Fisherman Mamed continues to go to sea even though, he says, there is less fish now than before permits were required.
Mamed’s sons, Rasul and Shahin, are fishermen like their father. They spend almost all of their time in the Caspian Sea or on a Pirallahi pier.

 More about Pirallahi island here: https://chai-khana.org/en/the-oily-sands-of-artyom

 

 

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