With Iran to its south and Russia to its north and west, the Caspian Sea is not only rich in oil and natural gas reserves, but it is also the world’s primary and largest habitat for the beluga, the most famous of the caviar sturgeons, as well as four other sturgeon species. This ancient fish, often described as a living fossil, has been swimming in the Caspian Sea since the time of the dinosaurs.
It is one of the world’s most expensive and highly sought-after seafood, mainly for its coveted eggs. However, the deteriorating condition of the Caspian Sea has long been threatening this fish with extinction. For years, environmental researchers and activists in Iran have warned that because of the unclear legal status of the Caspian Sea, which makes it difficult to manage pollution, overfishing and poaching, the sturgeon will become extinct in the near future.
Esmail Kahrom, an adviser to the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization, told Al-Monitor, “Extinction in any part of the world is due to two factors. One is the destruction of a species’ habitat or threats to its environment, and the other is poaching. So on the one hand, we are destroying the sturgeon’s habitat, and on the other, we are overfishing it. Therefore, do you think any future other than extinction could await this fish?”
Kahrom believes that one of the factors endangering life in the Caspian Sea is its closed nature. An artificial canal built by the Soviet Union in 1952 connects the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea through the Volga and the Don rivers, its only link to external waters.
According to Kahrom, this canal has led to, in some aspects, damaging biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and also increased its pollution levels. He told Al-Monitor, “This canal and the ships that pass through it are bringing environmental pollutants and even invasive species into the Caspian Sea, and there is no way around it.” One of these invasive species is Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jellyfish said to have entered the Caspian Sea from the Black Sea via the Volga-Don canal back in 1999, “They attacked the sprats, which were the main food source for the sturgeons and seals.”