The world’s largest inland body of water with no natural connection to open waters, the unique Caspian Sea has sometimes been classified as a lake, making its legal status murky. According to Article 123 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, whatever the five littoral states agree on will be considered law.
Iran and the Soviet Union once shared the resources of the Caspian Sea. However, following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent emergence of the new nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, it became necessary to clarify its legal standing. In recent years, close to 50 meetings of technical experts and four between heads of state have been held and a number of environmental and security cooperation agreements signed between the littoral states. However, none have yet resulted in a consensus over the Caspian Sea’s legal status.
In a memorandum of understanding signed at the end of the third Caspian summit in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on Nov. 18, 2010, the littoral states agreed to a five-year ban on the fishing of sturgeons. This ban was prolonged for an additional two years on May 29, 2015, at the 35th session of the Commission on Aquatic Bioresources of the Caspian Sea in St. Petersburg.
In Kahrom’s telling, these agreements have not been fully implemented. Kahrom told Al-Monitor, “Under international law, these fish can be harvested at the age of 9, when their eggs have turned into caviar. Thus, fishing nets that have the appropriate mesh size for 9-year-old fish should be used. However, if you travel along the different coasts of the Caspian Sea, you will see restaurants and cafes on the shorelines that are serving sturgeons as young as 2, 3 or 4 years old.”
The declining sturgeon population and the ban on their fishing has also meant a downward trend for Iran’s caviar exports. According to a 2010 report published by the semi-official ISNA news agency, Iran’s caviar exports plunged from 38 tons in the Iranian year 1383 (March 2004-March 2005) to just 344 kilograms (758 pounds) in the first 10 months of the Iranian year 1388 (March 2009-March 2010).