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