THE CASPIAN ENVIRONMENT
The fact that the Caspian Sea basin is rich in biodiversity is indisputable. The fact that this biodiversity is inadequately protected is also indisputable. For a summary of the main endangered species and some of the key threats to Caspian biodiversity, read on!
Wetlands and Birds
A large portion of the Volga River delta, in the northern portion of the Caspian Sea basin, is designated as a world biosphere site, and approximately half of the delta consists of wetlands protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Astrakhan Biosphere Reserve, located about 2 hours by car from the city of Astrakhan, serves as a filter on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, providing a strategic stopover location for East-African, Mediterranean and Central Asian waterfowl migration routes. Millions of birds from dozens of species use these globally significant migration paths. Birds flying from western Africa towards the northeastern portion of Siberia, and from the Arctic to eastern Africa and India, depend on the wetlands of this region. During the spring and summer, waterfowl number at 7 million and 19 million, respectively. In the summer, the delta is home to a minimum of 400,000 ducks. In the winter, hundreds of thousands of ducks, swans and coots inhabit the area. During the mating season, the region hosts approximately 36,000 pairs of Cormorants, 5,500 pairs of Great White Herons, 1,800 pairs of Glossy Ibis, 280 pairs of Spoonbills, 7,000 pairs of Mute Swans, and as many as 130,000 pairs of Common Coots. In all, more than 280 bird species are found in the lower Volga region alone.
Increased on- and off-shore oil extraction presents enormous risks to the habitat of these birds, to other inhabitants, and to the wetlands themselves. The shallow, boggy nature of the ecosystem makes it particularly vulnerable not only to petroleum products, but to heavy metals, which penetrate the muddy wetlands, harboring toxics and sending them up through the food-chain.
In addition to birds, the Caspian boasts a rich and varied fish life with over 100 species and subspecies. Approximately 40 percent of these species have commercial value, and over-fishing and pollution have plagued not only the sturgeon, but also smaller fish including sprat, salmon, and certain types of shad.
The Caspian Sea basin is home to many endemic species including endangered animals found in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Most well known are the four Caspian sturgeons: the Beluga Sturgeon, Sevruga, Sterlet and Russian Sturgeon, which are at critically low population levels and are threatened by poaching and dangerous levels of pollution. While the Caspian Sea provides 90 percent of the world’s caviar production, some experts estimate that if more stringent protection measures are not enforced in the nearest future, the world risks extinction of the Beluga Sturgeon, a species that dates back to the age of the dinosaurs. To read more about the plight of Caspian sturgeon, we recommend reading The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire by Richard Adams Carey.
Among the other at-risk animals is the Caspian Seal, an endemic species and the Sea’s sole mammal. Exposure to toxins in the Caspian Sea, which have reached capacity levels, has weakened the immune systems of the seal, causing massive die-offs in the summers of 2000 and 2002, when tens of thousands of seals washed up on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
The wetlands, migrating birds, sturgeon and seal populations demonstrate the wealth of unique and vital biodiversity in the Caspian Sea basin, and are only the most endangered of the region’s wildlife. Many other animal and plant species are threatened; still other species, such as the famed Caspian Tiger, have already suffered extinction. The myth that the Caspian’s biodiversity is adequately protected—as industrial development proceeds at an alarming rate—must be challenged before it is too late for all remaining species.