August 11, 2006

Caviar, oil targeted by Caspian protection plan

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) - Caviar lovers may benefit from a
five-nation deal entering into force from Saturday meant to
clean up the badly polluted Caspian Sea.

The Caspian Convention -- grouping Russia, Iran,
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- is the first legally
binding document on any subject adopted by the five shoreline
states with widely differing political systems.

The accord mirrors existing deals for the Mediterranean or
Baltic seas and aims to stop pollution, protect wildlife,
monitor the environment and work out joint responses to any
emergencies. It formally goes into force on August 12.

"The Caspian Sea's fragile environment is extremely
vulnerable to the region's current boom in oil and gas
exploration," said Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment
Programme (UNEP).

"Climate extremes and economic and political challenges
also put pressure on the Caspian's natural resources," he said
in a statement. Environmentalists say the deal, which lacks
enough financing, is a belated start.

Caspian sturgeon, the fish whose black caviar eggs are one
of the world's most expensive delicacies, are close to
extinction because of decades of overfishing, dams that block
access to spawning grounds and pollution.

"This is a first step in a very fragile area that is in
desperate need of protection," said David Santillo, a senior
scientist at the Greenpeace environmental group. "The
convention will need some kind of teeth to impose sanctions."

Regional oil output reached 1.9 million barrels per day in
2004 and reserves of oil in the region rival those of the
United States, UNEP said. Many oil majors such as Exxon Mobil
and BP have stakes in the Caspian fields.

The slightly salty sea covers 370,886 sq. km (143,200 sq.
mile) and is sometimes called the world's biggest lake.

Santillo said the fate of sturgeon and Caspian seals -- the
only seal species in a landlocked lake or sea outside Russia's
Lake Baikal -- would symbolize whether the convention worked.

Countries aim to cut pollution -- toxic and radioactive
wastes, agricultural run-off, sewage and leaks from oil
extraction and refining. About 11 million people live around
the Caspian shores.

Among other goals is trying to understand changes in sea
levels, perhaps linked to earthquakes or sediment shifts.

The Caspian dropped 4 meters (13 ft) from 1880 to 1977
before an abrupt reversal in 1977 flooded coasts and caused
billions of dollars in damage, UNEP said.