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Reversing the Central Asian Fisheries Cycle

by the Fish Site Editor
17 November 2008, at 12:00am

A recent review of the under performing central Asian fisheries industry has portrayed the situation as a cycle that needs to be stopped and reversed. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has set up a meeting in the hopes of establishing an intergovernmental regional organisation. But just how do they plan to turn this cycle around? asks Adam Anson, reporting for TheFishSite.


There is a limited diversity of fish species in Central Asian aquaculture, consisting mainly of carp (pictured), trout and sturgeon

The turning point of these events pivots on a story of triumph. In 1989 liberation came to the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan when the Soviet Union lost power and collapsed. But as the Iron Curtain drew an end to domination it also brought down a well-established chain for the processing, marketing and distribution of fish in Central Asia.

Now, nineteen years later, an unfortunate series of events has led to an unproductive fisheries sector and lowered levels of consumption. The events were set in motion only a few years after the Soviet collapse, when the cold storage fish distribution system disintegrated. The availability of frozen marine fish in the markets of Central Asia and the Caucasus decreased rapidly, resulting in large market reliance on fish supply from domestic markets - a supply that also decreased.

According to a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) this month (11/11/08), foreign trade relations with neighbouring countries (including the Russian Federation) deteriorated in the blast decade, thereby leading to inflation of imported fish prices as they were out of the reach of general populations. Fish became a luxury product, and consequently, consumption plummeted.

Regarding their recent findings, the FAO were led to conclude in a recent press release that today, "the region's fishing and aquaculture sectors are in a state of crisis".

Figures reveal that between 1989 and 2006, annual inland fisheries and aquaculture production in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan fell from between 60 to 72 percent. In the same period Tajikistan's production dropped by 94 percent, Kyrgyzstan's 98 percent, Azerbaijan's 92 per cent, Armenia's 81 per cent and Georgia's 98 per cent.

Fish consumption in the entire region has, to a large degree, disappeared from the average citizens diet, averaging at less than one kilogramme each per year. Generally, consumption of fish in the 1980s was tenfold of what it is today.

At present Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan show promising economic growth patterns, each over five per cent in 2006. Following a general rule, as the wealth of the countries increased so also did demand for these luxurious products. Unfortunately, this is also reflected in the fish prices at the market - prices which continue to rise beyond the average citizens capacity.

Nine FAO member countries from Central Asia and the Caucasus met in Tajikistan on the 10 November 2008 to discuss the situation and begin formulating a coordinated response. Along with them, they took a FAO report that has encapsulated the problems and the foreseeable solutions needed to end the cycle of woe.

Table 2: Fish Production in the Commonwealth of Independent States (tonnes)
Country 1989 2006 Current production as percentage of the 1989 output level
Armenia 7,342 1,406 19.2
Azerbaijan 54,406 4,093 7.5
Belarus 21,457 5,050 23.5
Georgia 148,318 3,075 2.1
Kazakhstan 89,508 35,676 39.9
Kyrgyzstan 1,447 27 1.9
Moldova 8,621 5,082 58.9
Russian Federation 8,246,556 3,456,044 41.9
Tajikistan 3,547 210 5.9
Turkmenistan 52,974 15,016 28.3
Ukraine 981,783 243,885 24.8
Uzbekistan 25,526 7,200 28.2
TOTAL 9,641,485 3,776,764 39.2
Source: FAO (Figis).

Reflection in Modern Waters

Despite their current status, it is largely regarded that the five central Asian countries have strong natural assets for aquaculture and fisheries - assets such as culmination of vast water bodies, a promising base of human resources and the technological legacy from the pre-independence era. The countries also share a fairly wide variety of aquatic animal species.

However, the FAO strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis of the fisheries sector of the region has also identified "deteriorated physical Research and Development capacities", "weak institutional-, policy- and legal frameworks", an "outdated production infrastructure", a "general lack of support to the sector" or simply put, a poorly managed sector.

The countries are identified by all possessing a number of ecological problems impacting aquatic biodiversity, sustainability of water resources and well-being of the environment and people in general. Many of the water systems are severely polluted and the production of inland fisheries production is continually hampered by problems such as overfishing, poaching, poverty, ignorance, poor monitoring and surveillance.

The FAO report claims that this is mainly because of lack of funding support, "poor coordination among authorities and poor restocking strategies".

This string of problems has culminated in the poor production output that we see within the sector today. The report identified a limited diversity of fish species produced in aquaculture, consisting mainly of carp, trout and sturgeon, and also limitations to diversity of production systems used in aquaculture.

Adding to these problems are a low level of catches and under-utilization of water bodies which have led to low production per hectare and low catch per unit of effort in inland capture fisheries.

The Story by Numbers

A quick look at the data gathered by the FAO lays bare the possible demand for fish in these countries; beneath this lies the economic and industrial potential.

There are 77 million people living in the combined areas of the five Central Asian and three Caucasus countries. According to the FAO "increasing the per capita consumption of fish to 12 kg per annum (as recommended by the Academy of Science of the Soviet Union) would require 928,000 tonnes of fish a year. Raising it to only 5 kg/year would still require 387,000 tonnes.

It is easy to understand the vast expansion available to the industry when these figures are contrasted with the combined fisheries production of the five Central Asian Republics we see today, which vary in estimate between 57,000 to 65,000 tonnes.

However, the FAO says that even if the industry could return to 1989, production levels would still supply only around 173,000 tonnes, this being much lower than the level needed to raise consumption to 5 kg a year.

The approximate area of productive lakes and reservoirs across the regions stands at a staggering 49 million hectares, yet pond culture is being carried out in a mere 22,000 hectares. This seems minuscule when put in perspective of the numerous rivers that flow for more than a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres.

A rough assumption of 10 kg/year per hectare increase in fish yield from enhancement and better management of the water resources would give an additional production from the lakes, reservoirs and ponds of more than 490,000 tonnes of fish. This would exceed the potential demand of the region’s population at 5 kg per caput per year. According to the FAO, "raising the consumption level target to 10 kg/year per caput implies a huge opportunity for the entire fisheries sector in earnings from the domestic markets in the region alone."

Turning the Cycle Around

An extract from the FAO analysis reads, "It may be harsh to present this set of linked issues as a vicious cycle but the steady and rather steep downward slide in production trends in all of the countries from 1989-90 to the present is a fair indication. If that were so, the cycle itself is an opportunity. Crack it and it could turn into a virtuous cycle. The question is where to begin?"

This seems like a good way of perceiving the problem; one that the concerning governments should adopt when taking into account the promising rise in demand. The key, it seems, lies in opening one's eyes to the social and economic potentials of fisheries. Yet so far the analysis portrays a fisheries sector that suffers from a very low priority in governmental policies and plans. If the government cannot bring itself to foresee the potential then it is up to the fisheries sector itself to show that it is indeed a worthy investment.

"In the ultimate, the fisheries sector will need to show persuasive evidence that it can significantly contribute to the social, economic and environmental objectives of the nation," says the FAO. "In short, success stories are needed that show that capture fisheries and aquaculture are worth investing in for the government and the private sector."

Their recommendations point to the cross-border, borrowing and exchanging of currently available technologies. The immediate application of known improved technology is the logical solution.

Regional collaboration in fisheries has been missing in Central Asia for almost two decades, according to Ndiaga Gueye, Chief of FAO's International Institutions and Liaison Service. "In situations like in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the individual countries lack the capacity to develop their sectors on their own," he said. "But examples from other regions, such as the Network of Aquaculture Centers in Asia-Pacific and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean show that regional collaboration can be highly effective, and provide a real boost to efforts to support sustainable development and management of the sector," he said.

Further Reading

- View the FAO Background Report by clicking here.

November 2008

the Fish Site Editor