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Caspian ecology endangered, Iranian expert warns

By Ali Raiss-Tousi

RASHT, Iran, September 1, 1999 - The Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland sea, faces a potential ecological disaster due to heavy pollution, overfishing and public indifference towards the environment, an Iranian expert said.

Shaaban-Ali Nezami, the top environmental official in Iran's coastal Gilan province, said industrial pollution from Russia and Azerbaijan was threatening 23 wildlife species, including the sturgeon which produce 90 percent of the world's caviar.

"The petroleum product content in Azerbaijan's waters is tragically high, exceeding the permitted norm by as much as five times in some areas," Nezami told Reuters in an interview.

He said this was due to spillages from old equipment used at offshore oil production sites.

"The same oil pollution problem exists in Kazakhstan's waters but at a lesser scale than Azerbaijan's catastrophe," said Nezami, director-general of the state Environmental Protection Organisation in Gilan.

"The big headache for us is that...oil-tainted and otherwise polluted waters off the Azeri coastline, which in places has literally become like a gutter, flow down to Iran's shores."

Nezami said Russia, the largest of the Caspian Sea states, was the main pollutant, dumping 12 billion cubic metres a year of sewage, including toxic pollutants, through the Volga.

Pollutants included highly toxic PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) waste and phenol, heavy metals, cancer-causing dioxins, and the pesticide DDT, he said.

"The Volga, which gives the Caspian 80 percent of its water supply, is so polluted by household, agricultural and industrial waste...that it is no longer effectively able to receive the sturgeon migrating to the river for spawning," Nezami said.

"Sturgeon...will disappear from the Caspian if fishing is not banned within the next two or three years. The ban will have to stay in effect for at least 10 years to allow a proper maturity and breeding of young sturgeon released into the sea by breeding centres in Iran and Russia."

He said Iran and Russia already released millions of young sturgeon into the sea but could not stop population decline.

"Only five percent of the Caspian's water is provided by Iranian rivers. So Iran's share of the pollution is slim and statistically insignificant because we do not have oil here, and the Caspian basin's south is not industrialised like the north. But this does not mean we have been good environmentalists.

"Residents and visitors of coastal regions in all five countries are woefully uneducated about their threats to the environment which is nurturing them," Nezami said.

Iran's caviar output in the year ending in March 2000 was expected to be less than 100 tonnes, while total production of all five Caspian Sea states would likely be less than 650 tonnes, he said, adding that Iran and the former Soviet Union produced as much as 4,000 tonnes a year in past decades.

He also cautioned against building oil and gas pipelines on the Caspian seabed, projects strongly opposed by Iran.

"The Caspian is an ecosystem under stress. The existing pollution has damaged marine life and the living of coastal communities.

"The plans to construct...pipelines on the seabed are not wisely founded because the Caspian Sea is in an earthquake prone area. The danger of damage to underwater pipelines by quakes are serious and the results will be catastrophic for the marine ecosystem and also for the coastal populations," Nezami said.