According to a UN Environment Programme estimate, the cost of the impact of the sea-level rise of the Caspian, as of 1994, was $30 to $50 billion (US). Coastal ecosystems have been destroyed, villages inundated and populations evacuated, sea banks eroded, and buildings destroyed. Coastal plains have been invaded by subsurface seawater or have become waterlogged. Fauna have changed, and pasture-lands and sturgeon spawning grounds have been destroyed.
Each of the five countries sharing the coasts of the Caspian Sea has suffered losses, and those losses increased until the mid-1990s. They suffer from the different impacts of sea-level rise because the territory along its coastline is neither uniformly settled nor uniformly developed economically. Economic losses in the big cities and villages have been higher than in the rural areas. More specifically, in Astrakhan Oblast (equivalent to an American state), about 10% of its agricultural land was out of production by 1995 because of sea-level rise. The coastline of the Republic of Dagestan (also part of Russia) was affected by the flooding of at least 40 factories in its cities of Makhachkala, Kaspiysk, Derbent, and Sulak. Nearly 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) of land have been inundated, with a loss of livestock production and breeding facilities. Much of the 650-km (390-mile) Caspian coastline of Turkmenistan is made up of low-lying sandy beaches and dunes that are vulnerable to coastal flooding and erosion. In fact, some Turkmen villages that were once several kilometers from the sea are now coastal communities. Similar adverse impacts of sea-level rise on human settlements and ecosystems are found in Kazakstan, Azerbaijan, and Iran.
The Caspian has been referred to as a "hard currency sea" because of its large oil and natural gas reserves and because of its highly valued caviar-producing sturgeon. Regional reserves contain upward of 18 billion metric tons of oil and 6 billion cubic
meters (215 billion cubic feet) of natural gas. Experts suggest that the Caspian is second only to the Persian Gulf with respect to the size of its oil and gas reserves, and that Turkmenistan is a "second Kuwait." If the sea level were to continue to rise, a large part of the oil and gas mains along the Turkmen coast would become submerged and would also be subjected to corrosion by seawater. Coastal settlements, which include the greater part of Turkmenistan's oil, gas, and chemical enterprises, would also be threatened. Similar environmental problems would certainly affect other Caspian coastal countries as well (e.g., Ragozin, 1995).
The Caspian Sea is unique in yet another respect: It contains about 90% of the sturgeon that produce the lucrative prized black caviar for export to foreign markets. Sturgeon roe is often referred to as "black gold." Today, however, Caspian sturgeon is at risk of extinction from overexploitation by illegal poachers and by destitute fishermen desperately seeking funds to buy food for their families. The sea-level rise, with its destruction of sturgeon spawning grounds, adds yet another threat to the endangered Caspian sturgeon.
Poachers hunt sturgeon only for its caviar. Today, they catch sturgeon directly in the open sea. However, in the early 1960s, prohibition was introduced by the former USSR against catching sturgeon in the open sea. Since that time, catching sturgeon has been carried out in the river deltas. Sturgeon reproduce very slowly: The fish do not spawn for the first time until they reach the age of 20 to 25 years. In 1990, the permissible catch of sturgeon in the USSR was set at 13,500 metric tons. In 1996, permissible (legal) catch was only 1200 metric tons (Rosenberg, 1996).
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