Juelsgaardvej 27, Ferring Strand.  DK-7620 Lemvig   Phone 0045 97 89 54 55   0045 51 24 82 20    Fax: 0045 97 89 56 55  Mail: llh@levende-hav.dk 


Dear Sir/Madam,

Suspect: This information is send to the national and international authorities and organisations involved in the Kazakhstan and World Bank Syr Darya and Northern Aral Sea project 2003 - 2006.  

We would hereby like to introduce you to the electronic version of the Masterplan for developing the Northern Aral Sea Fishery. The printed plan with figures, pictures and photos and with a complete list of addresses and references to persons and organisations involved, will be ready in the end of May 2003.

 - If you need a printed version, please send us a mail llh@levende-hav.dk

The first step of the implementation of the this Masterplan is already started in Aralsk in the frame of NGO Aral Tenizi. The first phase of building up Centre Kambala Balyk, a centre for fish processing and related activities is started in Aralsk. More information about this project will follow in the months to come. If you need this information, please send us a mail.

The Aral Sea from space

The report represents the conclusion of the Danish-Kazakhstani fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”, which has been working in the Northern Aral Sea (NAS) region during the past decade to re-establish and sustain a viable fishing trade in the region. By elaborating and distributing this report, the co-coordinators of the fishery project wish to close the project concluding on the history and experience obtained during the project period, and giving well-founded recommendations for future initiatives in the NAS region. 

The report contains three chapters, which describe the history of the NAS fishery and the fishery project, the current state of affairs in the NAS fishery, and the recommendations of the fishery project to any parties, which might take an interest in the NAS fishery in the future.


The NAS fishery is not only a distant dream from the past – it is a real and valuable trade in contemporary Kazakhstani reality; a trade which exactly at this point in time has highly interesting conditions for improvements and expansion. It is therefore time to shift the focus on the Aral Sea problem from the legend of the heavy vessels stranded in the desert, to the actual assets available in the sea and the region, which might come to benefit the inhabitants greatly.



Centre Kambala-Balyk

On behalf of the NGO Aral Tenizi and Living Sea and the many people who have contributed to the fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”, 

Kurt Bertelsen Christensen
Co-ordinator Kurt B. Christensen, chairman of The Danish Society for a Living Sea.
Juelsgaardvej 27, Ferring Strand
DK-7620 Lemvig
Phone 00 45 97 89 54 55
Fax 0045 97 89 54 55

Mail llh@levende-hav.dk



 Setting the Course for the Northern Aral Sea Fishery


The Aral Sea is entering a stage of renewed transformation. Since the 1960s, the changes in the marine and surrounding environment have been almost univocally to the worse; the water level was falling, the salinity rising, the fishery disappearing, villages abandoned. The consequences of the vast irrigation project on the “Virgin Lands” during the USSR of the fifties and sixties, proved to be catastrophic. At present day, the image of Aral as a shrinking and in effect dying sea has been spread and accepted world wide. Who hasn’t seen the stranded ships in the desert, or the sequel of figures or satellite photos, picturing the withdrawing coastline with a prognosis of the total or almost total drying out in the year 2000, 2010, or which ever point in the future that seemed adequately remote at the time?

But the image of Aral is about to change. Since 1996, the inhabitants of the Aral region at the Northern part of the Aral Sea have built a basis for a transformation in the opposite direction. Starting from a grass root level, in cooperation with authorities and scientific expertise, the people of the Aral region have worked industriously to make their voice heard in the national and international community: The Aral Sea is still worth fighting for, it represents a variety of natural assets, which have long been unused, and which can relatively simply be nurtured to become the basis of a new virtuous circle in the development of the region. Beginning with an ambitious and successful trial fishery from the village Tastubek in 1996, thousands of people in the region have taken part in re-establishing a fishery on the sea, and in rising the attention and awareness of the perspectives for the development of the region as a whole. The fishermen are returning to the villages. 90 new brigades and cooperatives have been established, counting over 600 active fishermen. The remaining facilities in fish treatment and transportation have been put into work again, and new added. A number of smaller, private enterprises have been engaged in treating and selling fish from the region centre. And an independent democratic NGO, the Aral Tenizi, has been created to work for the re-establishing of the sea, and for supporting the fishermen and their families in the transformation phase. Today, the aims of this society are shared by local, regional as well as national authorities, and actively supported by a growing amount of volunteering NGOs in the villages and towns around the Northern Aral Sea. 

This report aims at describing the background of these changes, and the possibilities they offer for maintaining and improving the positive development in the Northern Aral Sea fishery. Its basic claim is that this development has already started, on the basis of a broad and engaged involvement on a number of levels, including private, public and civil society, and that the urgent task now is to set the course for the future in accordance with the results and experience attained. Managing the portfolio of assets in the Aral region in a sustainable way to the benefit of its inhabitants, depends to a high degree on the direct involvement of the people concerned: the fishermen, their families, the private, civil society and public organisations and institutions. Therefore, the strategy for the future investments in the fishery sector should have as its basic tenet the ambition to support decentralized solutions and independent business structures. The responsibility of the development of the fishery can only be managed in a sustainable way by the fishermen themselves. To optimize the effects of future initiatives therefore, a direct contact with the fishermen and the main engineers of the development in the ecological, economical and organisational awareness in the region is needed.

The report is divided into three main chapters.

In the first chapter, the background of the current situation is described at some length, in order to shape the understanding of what it is, we are dealing with here: Not a random choice of employment for some group of people in the poorest part of Kazakhstan, but a serious and well founded attempt to revive a trade and an economical structure, which have earlier been developed to a high level, with many skills and potentials still available in the region, but which have been sacrificed at the benefit of an intense – and, as it turned out, in itself unsustainable – irrigation scheme. This chapter also tells the story of how the ambitions to revive the Aral Sea fishery appeared and were developed in the Danish-Kazakhstani cooperation, the results and experiences of which are the basis of the entire report.

In the second chapter, a detailed picture of the current situation in the Northern Aral Sea fishery is drawn; this includes separate parts on the resource, the fishermen, the transportation and treatment, the market, the NGO, and the authorities. As it will appear, in each of these fields there are most valuable assets available, which should be managed in an inclusive way, i.e. in a way such as to maintain and further the involvement of as many geographical, economical, and social parties as possible.

In the third chapter, the fishery project From Kattegat to Aral Sea, concludes on its results, and gives recommendations for the strategies to be employed in the future efforts to sustain and further develop the virtuous circle in the Northern Aral Sea fishery. These recommendations should be seen as a concrete attempt at providing the local and national authorities in Kazakhstan with our suggestions, as well as inspiring and encouraging international development agencies to build on the foundation already put down, rather than going through a troublesome quest for the right course in the fishery component of any ambitious development scheme for the Aral Sea basin. The recommendations are based on interviews with fishermen and NGO workers in the Aral Region, and in Denmark.

This report was originally encouraged by the advent of the agreement between the Kazakhstani government and the World Bank, as of February 2002, on the Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea project. Planning for the concluding year of the fishery project, which is financed mainly by the Danida (Danish Development Agency), the Danish co-ordinators had in mind to invite potential donors, together with government and administrative representatives, to a conference in Aralsk on the course for the future development of the fishery in the region. Once it was clear however that the Aral fishermen do in fact have the attention of their own government, as well as of the international community (in as far as this may be represented by the World Bank), it was decided instead to give more direct recommendations for these very welcome initiatives. Being the only practical initiative in the fishery sector of the Aral region since 1994, the fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea” should share its experience, and give its best recommendations for future initiatives.

In the period from the 20th of September to the 19th of October 2002 therefore, a group of four conducted a fact finding mission for this report: From Kazakhstani side Akmaral Utemisova (Aralsk) and Zhannat Makhambetova (Almaty), and from Danish side Jan Hertel-Wulff (fishery consultant) and Henrik Jøker Bjerre (The Danish Society for a Living Sea). During this month, visits were paid to all the significant fishing settlements around the Northern Aral Sea, incl. the four new receiving stations, interviews were made and meetings held in Aralsk, in oblast centre Kzyl-orda, and in Almaty and Astana. The results of this mission will mainly be found in the second and third chapter. The first chapter is based on both written sources (when possible first hand, e.g. from the statistical office in the Aral region, from the archives of the fishery factory Aralrybprom, etc.), and on direct experience from the fishery project.

Author of the report is M.A. Henrik Jøker Bjerre, member of the board of the Danish Society For A Living Sea, and participant in the fishery project since 1994.

Chapter 1: Stranded boats and staying nets

The pictures of the stranded fishing vessels in the desert, which was formerly the bottom of the Aral Sea, have been printed, broadcast and distributed world wide through a couple of decades. These impressive iron bodies of as much as 200 tons invoke the entire story of the once affluent and well structured fishery community, which was quite literally deserted by its political leaders. Such has the image of the Aral Sea and in particular its fishery since been comprehended: A super tanker stranded in the desert with no hope of rescue. And there is some truth in this metaphor, of course. The vast and significant fish treatment sovkhoz, the Aralrybprom, which was the heart of all fishing industry in the region, employing thousands of workers and fishermen at its peak in the early 1960s, is today but an empty ground with one lonely shivering building remaining from the elaborate community of offices, laboratories, workshops, freezing facilities, cold storages, etc. And the vessels themselves have in fact been given up, rusty, fragile and lonely as they lie there in the company of only cattle and the rare steppenwolf.

Nevertheless, it is time to departure from this image and leaves it to the history books. When the sun rises above the Aral Sea today, it not only illuminates the skeletons of the once-so-great vessels in the “ship graveyard” outside the village Zhalanash, where silence reaches an elevation of almost religious dimensions – it also, only some 30 km. away, sheds light on a mosaic of small boats with busy engines, carving across the coastal zone of the Northern Aral Sea (hereafter: NAS) to tend the nets, which have been put out the day before.

From camps on the sea shore in places near Tastubek, Akespe, Akbasty, Karateren, and Bugun, Aral fishermen are going out in teams of two-three, each team employing typically an eight-meter fibre glass boat, one engine, some twenty staying nets and already well acquired skills to take out and take care of the 200-500 kg. of flounder, they will probably catch. Setting the course for the future fishery on the NAS, one must be well aware of this new situation: the fishery industry today consists in a manifold of minor boats, small independent cooperatives, family brigades, and a variety of means for transportation. They say it is difficult to change the course of a super tanker; well here, the tanker is indeed stranded, and the course to be taken must take seriously into consideration that it is a flexible, diversified and decentralized fishery structure – a mosaic rather than a still-life – which it must fit. This mosaic will be described in more detail in chapter 2, and readers familiar with the fate of the Aral Sea and the history of the NAS fishery might proceed directly to that chapter. Here at first, we will dwell at the background of the current situation.

The rise and fall of the Aralrybprom 

“…Sacrifice, dear comrades, Aral fishermen and workers, with a generous hand! By this you will not only do a real human deed, but also strengthen the workers’ revolution…”

V.I. Lenin, October 1921.

The fishermen in Aralsk were on a friendly basis with the first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Entering the union with much energy, and a helping hand for the victims of the civil war and the accompanying hunger across the union, the Aral fishermen won both fame and recognition for their efforts. The 14 wagons of fish that were given on Lenin’s request as emergency aid in 1921, were much appreciated by the Kremlin, and the letter of gratitude from Lenin still (in 2003) meets the visitor, engraved in stone on the central square in Aralsk.

The systematization and improving infra structure in the USSR had a positive impact to the fishery on the Aral Sea. While in 1905, fishermen along the coast of the Northern parts of the sea caught an estimated 660 tons of fish, already in 1925 this figure was tripled. On the 21st of October that year, the fish factory Aralgosrybtrest (“Aral State Fish Enterprise”) was founded, and the following years the plant was rapidly growing, with constructions of offices, works shops, lodgings for fishermen, etc. In 1933, the production of the fish factory had reached 12,000 tons. The factory was well established and perpetually expanding, and its progress continued until the dramatic alterations of the river flow and the marine environment set in the late sixties. The steady progress in the NAS fishery was only interrupted, in the late thirties and throughout the forties, due to the aftermath of the hunger catastrophe and collectivisation, which were especially harsh to Kazakhstan, and due to the war. During World War II, the Aral fishermen again donated much of their work for the common good – this time mainly to the Red Army – under the slogan “More fish to the front and to the country!” (From 1941-1945, more than 50,000 tons were given to the state) While many villagers were sent to the front themselves, the remaining workers and fishermen were kept busy providing victuals for the region as well as for “front and country”. Once the war was over, it took some time to normalize the production, but soon the catches again increased. In the five years’ plan of 1956-1960, which might be termed the peak of the Aral fish factory, the plan was more than fulfilled with an average of more than 20,000 tons/year, caught and processed under the auspices of the enterprise now renamed Aralrybprom (“Aral Fish Industry”). At the time, some three thousand fishermen, workers, managers and others were employed in the fishery industry of the NAS alone. Adding to this the spill over effects on practically all other fields of the society, the value of such an industry in a region with a total of 63,000 inhabitants (as of 1.1.1967) can hardly be overestimated.

Until the early 1970s, a variety of species such as carp, bream, roach, pike-perch, and sturgeon were caught in the sea, and processed in the Aralrybprom. The catches would usually be organized in such a way that a number of smaller vessels would do the actual catching and then hand over the fish to large mother ships, where cooling and primary treatment would take place before and during transport to the harbour in Aralsk. A developing processing industry provided the Soviet market with fresh, frozen, salted, and smoked fish, and the economy of the villages was flourishing in the post-war years. Soon however, all of these species were to disappear from the sea, and some of them even to be extinct – due to the irrigation of the Central Asian steppe and desert regions.

The Soviet Union, and in particular its 1954-1964 leader Nikita Khrushchev, found an enormous potential for agricultural production in the abundant rivers Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya, which run across most of the territory of the five republics of Central Asia, ending in the Aral Sea with evaporation into the atmosphere as the only outlet. With an average annual flow of ca. 56 km3, the two rivers represented a resource of such dimensions that it for many decades had kept Russian and Soviet engineers dreaming of a more efficient exploitation of it[1][1]. Already in 1882, the Russian geographer and climatologist A.I. Voeikov wrote: “The existence of the Aral Sea within its present limits is evidence of our backwardness and our inability to make use of such amounts of flowing water and fertile silt, which the Amu and Syr rivers carry. In our country, which is able to use the gifts of nature, the Aral Sea would serve to receive water in winter [when it is not needed for irrigation] and release it in summer during high flow”[2][2]. This “backwardness” was going to be compensated dramatically, when the “Virgin Lands” project was carried out. Beginning with the 1946 decree “On the Plan and Measures Concerning the Rehabilitation and Further Increase of Cotton-Growing in Uzbekistan for the period of 1946-53”, the central authorities made the steppe land of Central Asia a corner stone in the ambitions to reach self-sufficiency, which became strategically crucial after the war.

Agriculture in Central Asia was collectivized and industrialized, and the flowing water in the rivers was finally put to use. The production of cotton grew dramatically, and millions were employed. The Soviet cotton production went from 2.2 million tons in 1940 to 9.1 million tons in 1980 (5.5. million tons of which were produced in Uzbekistan). Being of course highly valuable, both economically and strategically, this production however proved to be extremely unsustainable. Firstly, the irrigated steppe and desert areas were relatively quickly exhausted (because of evaporation and mineralization), and mechanical and chemical initiatives notwithstanding, the production decreased from the 1980-peak to a level in 2000, which resembled that of 1960. Travelling across the Aral Sea basin by plane or train today, it is easy to detect symptoms of this development: vast white unused fields remind the traveller of an over intensified agriculture. How dramatic the set backs in cotton, wheat, and rice production will eventually prove to be, and how much this will mean for the balance of an imagined total economy of the “Virgin Lands” project (including the costs following from the drying out of Aral), it is not our intention to estimate[3][3]. Secondly however, the irrigation program meant a world of difference to the Aral Sea, and hence to the climate of a significant part of the region, and in particular of course to the fishery. The river flow went down from 56 km3/year in 1960 to a little more than 4 km3/year just some 20 years later, resulting in a sea level lowered by one third, the area of the sea shrunk to the half, and the volume of the water in the sea lowered by more than two thirds. As the balance between fresh water inflow and evaporation was impaired, the salinity grew dramatically – from lake level to ocean level in ca. 20 years. Entire ecosystems were changed. The flora and fauna around the sea were impoverished, reed fields were lost, the sand and salts from the bare, former sea bed were carried by the wind at huge distances, causing illnesses in the local area, and affecting even quite remote regions, and of course the marine ecosystem was dramatically altered: A significant number of species from all animal communities in the sea disappeared because of the increasing salinity. Many links in the food chain of the fish were heavily damaged; spawning areas for fish were drying out. For the fishery, this had disastrous consequences. The rich fish resources were all but extinguished from the sea, and the basis of the single most important trade in the Aral region was demolished. The water withdrew from the harbour in Aralsk, and channels had to be dug to keep boats from stranding. As from 1975, the fishery on Aral lost its commercial significance. Around this time, the efforts to maintain access to the open sea for the biggest vessels were given up. In Aralsk, a number of boats were left on the bottom of the harbour with no escape possible, and in the last port of refuge outside the village Zhalanash, the “ship graveyard” was a reality, when an attempt to dam water for the channel connecting the sea with the natural lake near the village, was irreparably broken[4][4].

For the Aralrybprom, this development meant a thorough restructuring of the enterprise. The deliveries from the local sea came to a complete stop, and fish had to be transported to the factory from other fishing grounds, in order to keep it working. The technical skills of the employees, as well as the physical infra structure of the plant, and its convenient placement on the Moscow-Tashkent railroad, of course still represented a big value to the union, and so a new line of production was introduced. As from 1980, the Aralrybprom received its fish mainly from distant Soviet fishing centres – like the Baltic countries, Murmansk, and even Vladivostok. Every day, four wagons of cooled fish would arrive to Aralsk by train, be processed there, and send back to the consumers all over the union. This kept the factory in business throughout the eighties, but with the perestroika and the following dissolution of the union, also these deliveries came to an end. The Aral fishermen meanwhile, were sent out to other lakes in Kazakhstan, and for 5-7 years, the fish from these places (especially the Balkhas Lake in Eastern Kazakhstan), together with catches from the delta-area of the Syr Darya, made out the raw material of the plant. By the mid-nineties, when local fishing communities, e.g. in Balkhas, had more than enough problems to supply themselves, most of the opportunities to catch fish in remote lakes were also closed, and in 1996, the situation in the NAS fishery was roughly this: The only fish in circulation was the fish caught in the fresh water lakes in the delta-area of the Syr Darya, and in the river itself. Practically, the fishery industry was non existent in the Aral region.

In 1997 nevertheless, the Aralrybprom, like countless other sovkhoz in the republics of the former Soviet Union, was privatized. Purchased by the private company Alem Zholdyzy, the heart of the Northern Aral fishery industry was divided into a number of sub-plants, which were rapidly bereft of most of their values. One by one they went bankrupt, and in 1999 all work was stopped – the short life of the new fish treatment workshop “Kyzmet” (the sub-plant containing the processing facilities of the former Aralrybprom) ending formally in 2000. The workers of the once proud and highly productive fish processing plant were finally “set free”[5][5], and today, the only signs of the many years of more than fulfilled production plans, are the open bare ground, where workshops, offices, laboratories, etc. were situated, and the one last lonely building with the skeleton of the former freezing facilities and cold storages.

Although however, the last thirty years of the Aralrybprom was in fact a continuous decline in nearly every aspect, the employees of the factory nevertheless were able to mobilize the last efforts of the enterprise to contribute to the initiation of a new fishery, which would prove to give back the hope to the Aral fishermen, and re-establish the NAS as a valuable commercial fishing ground.

Pleased to meet you – introducing the flounder, the international cooperation and the new structures in the fishery.

The history of the Aral Sea is adverse. The river flow of the sea’s two lifelines has varied, and droughts have been registered earlier, incl. such caused by human influence. What make the events of the second half of the twentieth century remarkable and catastrophic is of course the immense and unforeseen effects they had on the lives of millions of people, especially in the Aralsk and Muynak regions. In much the same way, the fate of the many species of fish that disappeared from the sea, is not in itself a tragic story, but certainly the consequences their disappearance had to the lives of the people around the sea. These seemingly trivial remarks should emphasize the following. To understand the current situation in the NAS fishery, it is needed to understand that the ecological catastrophe of the drought and the damaged ecosystems is not a destruction of an original or pure natural environment without artificial components. The Aral Sea was already before the present crisis highly influenced by human interaction, and especially its ichthyologic history is rather complex. The biological science in the USSR was always an industrious one, and ichthyologic expertise was employed already from 1927 to introduce alien species to Aral. Species such as sturgeon, shad, mullet, shrimp, herring, and carp were introduced during the build up of the fishing industry around Aral, and the marine environment was carefully monitored – new plans of breeding and introduction always on the way. It was therefore no sudden revelation that made Soviet scientists come up with the idea to introduce new species to Aral, when the rising salinity made it seriously difficult to maintain the animal communities from the brackish water ecosystem. Along with other species (mainly those in their food chains) the snakehead and one flatfish – the flounder Platichthys flesus – were introduced in the years around 1979. Like both indigenous and other introduced species, these new members of the Aral marine community were carefully followed by the KazNIIRX institute in Aralsk[6][6]. The Platichthys flesus – or in Russian Kambala glossa, was introduced from the Azov Sea, and was particularly well fit to the varying conditions in the Aral Sea, especially with regards to the salinity. Needing a minimum of 12-14 mg salt/l to reproduce, and being able to survive in even extreme conditions (an expedition to the Southern Aral Sea in 1998 showed that Kambala in abundant numbers were living well in salinities of up to 60 mg/l), the flounder soon proved to be the right choice for maintaining fish life in the sea. Around 1990, the ichthyologists of KazNIIRX in Aralsk found it appropriate to initiate a trial fishery for flounder to see if their prognosis would be sustained: That the flounder could be the new commercial species in Aral. One of the most distinguished fishermen in the region, mr. Nargali Demeyuv, was appointed to head a brigade and conduct the trial fishery in the spring of 1991, but even though the catches indicated that the potential might be real, the conditions in nearly all fields of organization, hardware, treatment, and distribution made it a potential which could still not be actualized. In short, the Aral fishermen needed new equipment (the seines used were unfit for catching flatfish, and they had not been renewed for quite some years), and knowledge of the handling of the new fish. Furthermore, the people in the region were entirely unfamiliar with flatfish, and in effect not counting it as a fish fit for consumption. The flounder fishing therefore was stopped again before it really got started, and like in many other fields of the society, initiatives and optimism were fading. The inhabitants of the Aral region grew increasingly accustomed to a victim identity: They were the ones who lost in the great game of the Virgin Lands, and while many people emigrated from the region, the remaining were depending more and more on public welfare and subsidies from the state (most salaries in the nineties were added an “ecological compensation”, as the Aral region was considered an area of ecological disaster.) After 20 years of withdrawal of the coastline of the sea, the fishery was maintained merely in the songs about the proud past, and in the tales, which the aksakals could entertain with on the long winter evenings. A generation of youngsters grew up without even seeing the sea, which was the background of their cultural identity. This was the situation, when the idea was born to create a Danish-Kazakhstani cooperation.

In 1994, Danish fisherman and environment activist Kurt B. Christensen decided to invite two colleagues, an ethnographer and a photographer, on a trip to the Aral Sea. Having visited the region on one occasion earlier, Kurt couldn’t free himself from the image of the iron corpses in the ship graveyard, now situated tens of kilometres away from the sea. The three set out with the purpose of telling the story of the ecological catastrophe through the eyes of the fishermen, who had experienced it first hand. Until now, the story of Aral was mainly known in international media as the story of the irrigation project, the dramatically shrinking sea, and the sands and salts blowing just about everywhere, but not so much as the story about the professional fishermen who were overheard and put completely out of business. On this trip, in the village Zhalanash, just two-three kilometres away from the stranded vessels on the former sea bed, a Soviet book from the 1930s should come to play a surprising role. Then bookkeeper of the Djambul fishery kolkhoz, Tolagai Ualiev, was hosting the visitors from the far West, when he suddenly reminded the book. Talks had been on a variety of subjects, and the company was about ready to turn in after another day filled with impressions and warm meetings, when mr. Ualiev went to his bookshelf and took down the 1939 edition of Teoriya i Raschet Orudij Rybolovstva (Theory and Estimation of Fishing Tools), which contains a paragraph on Danish seine fishing for flounder. In this paragraph, the “theory of catching with Danish seine” is described, with references to the inventor of this technique in 1848, Danish fisherman Jens Væver. Having recollected old days and discussed the perspectives for the fishery industry in Aralsk with the Danish guests, Tolagai Ualiev came up with an idea. “If you want to do something concrete here, except from telling our story – why not to investigate the possibilities to employ the Danish techniques of flatfish catching in Aral?” Being somewhat surprised that there was even fish in the sea; the Danish group agreed that the idea in principle seemed immediately obvious, and went home determined to investigate the possibilities of an initiative. Contacts were maintained between Denmark and Kazakhstan, and in 1995, a group of five people with connections to the Kazakhstani fishery industry visited Denmark: The chairman of the Djambul kolkhoz, the deputy mayor of Aral region, the last general director of the Aralrybprom, the leader of the Balkhas Fishery Research Institute, and the Kazakh coordinator of the new international cooperation. In Denmark, meetings were held with potential donors, and the Kazakhstani group got acquainted with the Danish fishery industry. A “Protocol of Our Common Aims” was signed, and in 1996 the idea from the late night dinner table in Djambul came into actual being.

Danida (The Danish Development Agency) funded the first phase of the fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”, which mainly consisted in a trial fishery on the Aral Sea in October 1996. Prior to this, a group of 19 people from the Aral region and Almaty (then capital of Kazakhstan) – fishermen, technicians, scientists and translators, visited Denmark to create a common background for the coming partnership, and for the fishermen specifically to work with flounder fishing on board Danish cutters. A truck arrived to Aralsk from Denmark at September 22 with 1,000 nets for flounder catching, warm clothes for the autumn and winter seasons, other fishing tackle, and some presents for children in the local schools. And beginning on the 2nd of October, 63 Aral fishermen from the remains of the Aralrybprom, plus the two kolkhozes still in business at the time (“Djambul” and “Raim”), together with four colleagues from Denmark, conducted a trial fishery from the sea shore outside the village Tastubek, hoping that the catches during the 14 days period would make it feasible to continue the fishery project and eventually re-establish a fishery on Aral. Preparations were made in an atmosphere mixed of excitement and speculation: What did these Westerners really want? In some places, suspicion was more prevailing than willingness to co-operate, and the foundation of the project was therefore not to be laid in the many discussions and signatures, but in the concrete, practical work among colleagues. Kazakh and Danish fishermen found each other in the shared wish to take part in the historic event of a re-establishing of the fishery on Aral. Most of the work was conducted with a common tacit understanding of the craft, and for more abstract discussions schoolteachers were volunteering to work as translators on the shore and on the sea. Evenings were spent in the village with discussions, story telling, singing and joking, and on the night before the first nets were put out, a group of retired fishermen with experience from the great fisheries of the 1950s and 1960s visited the camp to pray for a successful common job. Besides the obvious need of a sufficient amount of fish, there was also the quality of the flounder to consider: Was it at all fit for human consumption (or containing too many heavy metals, pesticides, or other contaminators from industry and agriculture), and was it of a gastronomic quality that would enable the fishermen to create a market for it at all? The answers to these questions were overwhelmingly positive. Employing only about two thirds of the nets brought in from Denmark, and small eight-meter fibre glass boats, many of which were build for fishing on the river, the Aral fishermen landed more than 50,000 kg. of flounder during a fortnight. Notably, the quality of this fish was outstanding. Laboratory tests proved that contamination was not a problem, and the fish itself was delicious and of much higher quality than e.g. Danish flounder (more like a plaice).

These encouraging results were to make out the foundation of the fishery project, which is now (2003) entering its last year. While Danida remained the main sponsor throughout this period, private companies, foundations and individual fishermen in Denmark also contributed with hardware and labour to the project, and in the Aral region, volunteers supported the idea from the beginning, and became more in numbers for each passing year. The thought of reviving the Aral Sea fishery was compelling, and nearly every person in the region had relatives or friends who had worked in the fishing industry, if he or she had not him-/herself been employed as a fisherman or at the Aralrybprom. Cooperation between Denmark and Kazakhstan was conducted initially through the two main coordinators: Almaty biologist and associated professor Makhambet M. Tairov in Kazakhstan, and Kurt B. Christensen in Denmark, but in 1998, the volunteers in Aralsk, together with the growing numbers of fishermen, founded the NGO Aral Tenizi, which eventually became responsible partner of the Danish Society For a Living Sea.

The fishermen themselves were initially organized in the old Soviet structures: The majority still under the auspices of the Aralrybprom, and a considerable part in the two remaining kolkhozes, Djambul and Raim. As the branches of the Aralrybprom began to go bankrupt however, the fishermen from the villages, which had been sorting directly under the sovkhoz, began to take initiatives to become more independent. The catches from the trial fishery in October 1996 meant a sudden revival of the fishing industry. Already during the winter season 1996-97, local groups of fishermen decided to continue fishing on their own hand – and with good results. In 1997, the fishery project encouraged and supported the fishermen to create new independent cooperatives with a maximum of 15 members, in agreement with a reform in Kazakhstani regulation on private enterprise. The new cooperatives became juridical bodies and obtained the possibility to enter concrete and binding agreements with the fishery project. This has since 1997 meant that an increasing number of fishermen have received administrative, professional, and hardware support from the project, and that today some 90 brigades (ca. 600 fishermen) have been equipped to catch fish on Aral again. Accordingly, the catches have gone up. The 20 years of stand still were ended in 1996, when ca. 150 tons were caught and only minor set backs due to storms, ice, etc. have broken the progress since then.

Since 1996, Danish delegates have visited the Aral region every year. In all, 18 Danish participants have worked in the region, incl. first of all fishermen, one biologist, technicians, NGO consultants, students, journalists and photographers. The total amount of work reaches approximately five man-years (not counting the volunteer work in Denmark). Most of this work has been focused on the handling of the transportation and division of fishing tackle from Denmark and on the build-up of the co-operatives and the NGO, and each year since 1999, Danish representatives have been present on the general assembly of Aral Tenizi. The division of responsibilities between Danish and Kazakh partners has moved in direction of local involvement and authority. Depending heavily on the two outside co-ordinators (from Almaty and Denmark) in the first couple of years, the Aral fishermen and civil society have increasingly taken responsibility.

A number of heterogenic factors made it possible to re-establish the fishery on Aral: The flounder, which had had a little less than 20 years to adjust to the environment in Aral, the encounter – right on time – of the Danish and Kazakh fishermen and their cooperation in the project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”, the readiness of the fishermen to establish new structures and adopt a new kind of fishery, and the capability of the civil society in the Aral region to grasp the opportunity to support the positive development with volunteer- and eventually also professional NGO work. After a couple of years of common efforts, the result was clear: There was a real potential for a revival of the commercial fishing on the NAS.

Methods and results of the fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”.

As indicated, the revival of the NAS fishery depended on a number of factors. The successful acclimatization of the flounder to the saline waters of the shrunk Aral Sea evidently was a sine qua non. Furthermore, the efforts to establish new and sustainable structures in the fishery industry of the Aral region have depended on a close cooperation between Kazakh and Danish fishermen, and a high degree of faith in the common aims and intentions. In fact it is our claim that the development in the fishery industry of the NAS would have been impossible with a traditional development/aid – approach. The direct and engaged involvement of the Aral fishermen themselves has been the engine of the project; not only did the original idea of the project spring from a fishing kolkhoz, the fishermen have taken part in discussions on each step of the development, first of all through the board of the society Aral Tenizi, which has been responsible partner and distributor of communication and equipment since 1999. In a profound sense of the word, this project has therefore been a grass root-project. Literally, the raw material for the project has been lifted up from the sea, and the entire project has been founded on the common practical work of Kazakh and Danish fishermen, initially in the 1996 trial fishery from Tastubek at the North-West coast of the NAS. The importance of this situation for the future efforts in further developing of the NAS fishery should not be underestimated: The NAS fishermen have taken up the challenge to re-establish their trade as a viable and sustainable business, and they will demand to be heard in future vital decisions on their field. Their organization in new fishery cooperatives, the establishing of new structures in the treatment and selling of fish, and the common decisions and voice in the NGO Aral Tenizi, have all been supported by the project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”, but the real strength of this project has been the motivation and involvement of the people involved in all chains of the production, from sea to table.

The common work of the Danish delegates and the staff and board of NGO Aral Tenizi has been to encourage, support and monitor viable initiatives in the NAS fishery. This has demanded much creativity, patience and persistence from all involved parties, and the methods have on each step been to include and join forces with everyone, who supports the purpose of the project. The project has therefore taken part in so different things as repairing fibre glass boats, packing frozen fish in boxes, cooking advertisement meals on the central square, arranging contests for school children’s drawings, searching for buyers in bigger cities, having meetings with regional and national authorities, catching fish, eating traditional meals, publishing a book on the most honourable fisherman of the region, arranging seminars and assemblies, giving credits and monitoring the appliance with the contracts…

Beginning with the visit of the leaders of the (remainders of) the NAS fishery to Denmark in 1995, the fishery project build on an ever extended directness in the cooperation between the parties. The agreements made in 1995 were effectuated in 1996, where firstly a group of NAS fishermen visited Denmark and got a grip of the Danish traditions of flounder fishing, while at the same time drawing a sketch of the cooperation to be carried out in the October trial fishery, and secondly the actual fishing from Tastubek village was conducted with a very limited material affluence, but a high level of engagement and professional comradeship. The interdependency in the quest for a successful trial fishery created a bond between the Danish and Kazakh partners, which has tied the common work together through many difficulties since then. Going to the sea, clenching the fish, weighing and transporting, negotiating prices with potential buyers, keeping in touch with ichthyologic expertise and with the local authorities – all these activities have had a double sided effect:

  • The NAS fishermen have obtained a significant degree of independence and self-sufficiency. Being regular employees throughout the period of the USSR, with a very limited responsibility (in scope), the fishermen have been depending on outside organization of practically all parts of their trade, except of the actual catching of the fish. This dependency has been, and still is, one of the major difficulties in the project. Now however, the cooperatives, the private initiatives in fish treatment, and the common voice of the fishermen in Aral Tenizi, have reached a level where no return is possible. Any future development of the fishery industry of the NAS must take this into account: Decentralized and inclusive methods and solutions are essential for a continuation of the virtuous circle.
  • The NGO workers and the volunteers on both Danish and Kazakh side have obtained a practical experience which makes them highly competent in dealing with problems in all links of the fishery industry which will now be build around the NAS. Depending from the very beginning on four Danish grass root workers, and the volunteer efforts of the Aral region civil society, the people involved in this process have had to make decisions in fields far beyond their immediate scope. School teachers and their students, unemployed volunteers, and most importantly former employees of the Aralrybprom have taken part in this development on each step. Along the way, novel ideas and experiments were created in order to overcome the difficulties on practically all levels, from how many fishermen should be in each brigade to receive support or credits, over hygienic standards in transporting and washing the fish, to marketing in local cafés and at big city markets. Any future development program for the NAS fishery will have the unique advantage of an easily attainable bank of knowledge, experience and know-how on any imaginable field – it is all available in and through the NGO Aral Tenizi, and the village branches of this society.

Concretely, the fishery project has developed along the following phases:


1994:       The idea of the project is born in the village Zhalanash during a visit of a Danish delegation.

1995:       A delegation of fishery leaders, scientists and the deputy mayor of Aral region visit Denmark to elaborate the ideas and make preliminary agreements.

       First phase of the fishery project: Trial fishery

1996:       A group of fishermen from Aralsk visit Denmark for a one month study of Danish NGO work and flounder fishing. Agreements are made on the October trial fishery.

                A cargo of 1,000 nets and other material arrives from Denmark to Aralsk, and the trial fishery from Tastubek is carried out with remarkable results. NAS fishermen continue catching flounder throughout the winter season.

Transitional phase: Developing sustainable structures

1997:       New legislation in Kazakhstan encourages the establishing of smaller private cooperatives. The fishery project supports the NAS fishermen in this procedure.

1998:       During the autumn fishery season, the project makes its first attempt at promoting a correct treatment of the flounder “from sea to table”. 23,000 kg. are treated according to European standard and sold on the market, mainly in Almaty.

                A biological expedition with Danish and Kazakh scientists investigates the condition of the flounder in both the NAS and the SAS.

                The NGO Aral Tenizi is founded.

 The last phase of the fishery project: Sustaining the virtuous circle

1999:       Aral Tenizi celebrates its first general assembly.

                The second cargo of equipment from Denmark arrives. The (refrigerator) container itself becomes the first step in establishing local receiving stations near the fishing grounds around the NAS.

                A minor credit scheme is established within the frames of Aral Tenizi to enable micro credits to be available for fishery cooperatives.

                A Norwegian TV-group shoots the first documentary on the new development in the NAS fishery: “The dream about the great catches.”

2000:       Two more containers from Denmark arrive.

                Another promotion campaign for the Aral flounder is conducted within the auspices of the fishery project – this time treating 140,000 kg. in cooperation with the factory Aknur.

2001:       One more container arrives. The receiving stations are beginning to function. The fish processing plant Karasai Kazi obtains right to utilize the new container for one year, in return for assistance in receiving the cargo from Denmark.

2002:       The last of the five containers transported from Denmark until present day arrives in Aralsk. Receiving stations are now built up in Akbasty, Tastubek, Bugun, and Karateren. A third processing plant emerges in Aralsk: Akbidai-2. However, even with three enterprises in function, abundant catches in September and October result in serious difficulties in handling the fish accurately, which again leads to a low average quality and reduced prices.

2003:       Investigations are made of the possibilities to strengthen the freezing and processing links in Aralsk. Preparations are made for establishing a new type of organization in Aralsk. Common meetings among fishermen and NGO employees result in a decision to opt for a reworking of the procedures in treating the fish – ideally in a new plant owned and controlled by the fishermen themselves through Aral Tenizi.

Figure 2: Flounder catches from the Northern Aral Sea, 1994-2002 (tons).



















Sources: Ermakhanov, Aral Tenizi.

The results of the common efforts of the Kazakh and Danish fishermen during the past decade have many facets, and involve literally thousands of people all around the NAS. A more detailed picture of the situation six years after the common trial fishery in 1996 can be found in the following chapter, but let us here illustrate some of the impact of the re-establishing of the fishery by focusing on two stories, concerning the development of one family and one village: Kanaly Kanibetovs family in the village Zhalanash, and the fishing village Tastubek.

Kanaly Kanibetov and the cooperative “Asta”.

In 1998, the fishery project was busy initiating a controlled experiment to treat and sell flounder according to European standards. As described above, in event 23,000 kg. were treated and packed and sold with nice results for all involved parties. At the same time, negotiations were perpetually going on between the Danish delegates, their partners (volunteers) in Aralsk, and the ever increasing amount of fishermen from all over the region, who came to the city because of the rumours that one Danish project was giving support for fishery. Among the many applicants for support were also some opportunists with very unclear intentions of anything except gaining from the benefits of international aid, and of course a number of people who were genuinely interested in the possibilities to use the fishery project to start something new and valuable, but without credible means to realize these intentions. The project workers were therefore carefully making interviews and discussing internally each candidate to make sure that the equipment and eventual credits were given out for a worthy purpose. The procedure (as it was maintained and developed throughout the project period) was a detailed interview combined with a thorough discussion between the Danish and Kazakh NGOs (i.e. from 1999 between Living Sea representatives and Aral Tenizi staff): Do we know this person, is he or she really a professional fisherman, is the information stated in the interview liable to be true and the plans realistic, etc. Among the criteria were that the cooperative should be registered, boats and vehicles should already be available to the fishermen and clear and realistic intentions to catch fish from the sea itself (and not from the stressed ecosystems in the delta-area) should be discernable. One of the people, who came to Aralsk in the autumn of 1998 with nothing much but good intentions to offer, was Kanaly Kanibetov. A genuine pater familias, Kanibetov wanted his family to take advantage of the one positive development in the region, he knew of: the fishery. Therefore he came to the headquarters of the fishery project and stated his intentions. He wanted to catch fish from Aral, and asked for support. On the face of it, there was no reason to suppose that Kanibetov could fulfil the criteria to receive support: All questions about the available gear, which the project demanded, were answered negatively. No boats, no vehicles, no nets. Kanibetov however saw no problem in this. “I have adult sons”, he said, ”and I will take them with me to the sea. There, we will undress, and drag the nets, which we will borrow from the project, and place them in the sea. The fish we catch will be the basis of our fishery cooperative.” The insisting look on Kanibetovs face made the project workers hesitate to decline him assistance, and after some consideration they agreed to provide him with the immediately necessary means to start fishing. The cooperative “Asta” was soon founded, and Kanibetov did as he had said. Fish was caught, eaten and sold, and some income was generated, whilst – economically equally important – the expenses for buying meat were lowered. In the following years, “Asta” expanded its activities, and today all Kanibetovs seven sons, and partly his four daughters, are living from the fishery. The cooperative is one of the best examples of the driving forces in the work to re-establish fishery on the NAS: Determination, willingness to cooperate with all involved parties (NGOs, juridical and political authorities, fish processing plants, relatives…), and trust in the common understanding, the handshake and the goals that transcend the immediate hit-and-run profit seeking. Today, Kanibetovs family takes part in the common work to re-establish the fishery on the NAS, they vote at the general assembly of Aral Tenizi, and they catch fish. Fish is distributed within all the links of the family, and the surplus sold through the plants in Aralsk. This business has generated enough profit for Kanibetov to enable him to buy four vehicles, incl. one truck.

The village Tastubek.

Another story, which during the project period of “From Kattegat to Aral Sea” has been central to especially the Danish participants, is the story of the village Tastubek. As described above, it was on the shore near Tastubek that the 1996 trial fishery was conducted. At that time, the village consisted in a mere six-seven houses with the families, which more and more seemed to have simply postponed the inevitable: To leave the remainders of the once affluent and highly productive fishery community and move to Aralsk, or to Saksaulsk – another nearby town. The families were living from the pensions of the elderly, and the scarce profit from some meat production and the zhubat (camel’s milk), which is especially rich in Tastubek. On the shore itself, no traces of human activities were visible for miles in all directions. The yurtas (nomadic tents) and the one wagon, which were placed there to make out the headquarters of the fishery project, looked slightly misplaced, when the nets were put for the first attempts. During the successful period of the trial fishery however, life rapidly returned to the shore: The overwhelming amounts of fish, the birdlife accompanying the vessels already in the second week, the many languages spoken (Kazak, Russian, English and Danish), and the trucks that increased in numbers as it dawned on the leaders of the Aralrybprom that there was more to the attempt than valuable equipment from the West – there was fish, a lot of it, and of high quality. After the Danish project workers had long gone home to their families, studies and jobs, the fishermen in and around Tastubek continued investigating the possibilities to make a decent living from catching fish. With organizational structures in a state of disintegration (the new cooperatives were only to be encouraged by the government the following year), private people tried their luck at catching fish for their own consumption and some micro trade in the villages. For Tastubek, these modest beginnings meant a world of difference. During the winter of 1996/97, the villagers worked industriously to sustain the positive results of the trial fishery, and to make a real try at reviving their trade. Even though marketing was naturally low, if not non-existing, and the fishing had to be conducted with fragile old local nets (the kolkhozes and the Aralrybprom were still responsible of all Danish nets, which had been brought in), the winter showed that there was real perspective in the flounder fishery, and Tastubek was among the first to register a cooperative, when the new legislation was ready. Year by year, the fishermen of Tastubek improved their situation. They borrowed nets from the project, obtained credits, and they organized their own catching and selling. Some of the families that had left the place recently returned, and eventually even people from outside came and build houses. Almat Aitbaev, for instance, moved out from Tastubek with his parents in 1972. Almats father received a job as a driver in Aralsk, and Almat himself followed in his father’s steps, until the House of Culture, where he was employed, had to annul his job due to economic reasons. He then found a short engagement in the Aralrybprom (send out as a fisherman to the Irgiz lake near Aktobe), but only to see this opportunity also coming to an end. When his brother Dusbai – who had stayed in Tastubek – told him about the new possibilities in the village, it was therefore logical to Almat to try his luck and move back to the village, which he did in the summer 2000. One year later, he was so convinced of the reasonableness of his brother’s words that he started building his own house, and today the brothers have even opened the second fishery cooperative of the village – “Aibolat DAE”, counting six fishermen.

The streets of Tastubek are now again described in the plural, and more than 20 houses are making out a solid foundation of a new period of optimism. Among the innovations in the village are also the receiving station, which is structured around one of the cooling containers send from Denmark, several houses build by fishermen from outside for season accommodation, and a brand new school, build by the villagers themselves, and employing a teacher for the two classes already busy learning (just two years ago, children had to move to Zhalanash, Aralsk or Saksaulsk, if they were to receive education – not all did).

Economical progress and environmental action.

It is beyond any doubt that the re-establishing of the NAS fishery has had a number of positive effects. The income of up to 600 fishermen and their families has been lifted, and in some cases even boosted. The basis for an interesting, though in global scale of cause modest, industry has been established. And the democratic development of the Aral region has been supported through the involvement of the fishermen, the NGO mobilisation, etc. However, a basic question has been underlying the whole enterprise from the beginning: What if the dark prognosis will prove true and the sea will entirely disappear? Wouldn’t all these efforts have been wasted and people been given false aspirations? An answer could be given along these lines.

It is the official policy of the Danish Society for a Living Sea that the protection of the marine environment must take place with the direct involvement of the parties most immediately concerned, which in most cases means the fishermen. A sustainable management of the natural resources can only be made realistic, if it is conducted in accordance with, and at best by the users. Therefore, the role of the grass root project in Aralsk has not only been to provide people with gear and a temporary income, but also to join forces in the efforts to make the outside world aware of the potentials in preserving the sea as a source of economic growth and climatic stabilisation. The many meetings with regional, national and international organisations have increasingly indicated the results of this work. First of all, the NGO Aral Tenizi is today broadly accepted as a trustworthy and perspective organisation, which is based on real and direct knowledge of the complex natural and social conditions in the NAS and its surroundings. Secondly, significant political decisions have been made during the past five years, which indicate a clear and positive will to fight for the remainders of the sea. It is difficult to say how much influence the events in Aralsk and the fishery communities of the NAS have had on these decisions, but whatever the motivations, they do give new hope for a sustainable development of the NAS fishery trade. In February 2002, the Kazakhstani government and the World Bank signed an agreement on the “Syr Darya Control And Northern Aral Sea”. This agreement aims directly at preserving the NAS – partly by repairing a line of sluices, channels, and other constructions, which for many years have caused an immense waste of water along the Syr Darya, and partly by building a dam across the Berg Strait between the NAS and the SAS. The dam construction has been tried at several occasions earlier on local initiative, and has proven to have very positive effects to the environment of both the NAS and its terrestrial surroundings. An improved and well prepared construction, based on earlier experience and external expertise, should enable a solid and lasting solution. The aim of a dam construction is shortly said to change the current situation, where most of the water from Syr Darya runs to vast shallow areas south of the Berg Strait, and mainly evaporates. According to the organisation responsible of the design of this project, the KazGiPoVodKhoz in Almaty, the planned construction should enable a stabilization of the water level in the NAS at 42 m. above sea level, by an annual flow of 3 km3 per year. (The tender has already been held, and won by the Russian construction company Sarubevodstroi. The construction work is scheduled to begin during 2003). This would have as an effect that the salinity would be significantly lowered (estimated at an average 17 mg/l. and at many places undoubtedly lower), and fresh water species would be introduced. The coast line would stop withdrawing, and instead take back deserted former sea bottom – even though the water will not still reach Aralsk (this would require a water level of 46 m.). The conditions for fishermen all around the NAS would be considerably improved, and the build-up in the NAS fishery industry, which has recently taken place, would prove to have been only the first small steps in a serious remaking. A sum of US$ 2 million has been earmarked in the World Bank project to support the fishery industry of the NAS. Hopefully, these and other investments will be realised in the coming years to the benefit of the communities of the Aral region.

Chapter 2: The NAS fishery – the situation 2002.

The story of the Aral Sea fishery as described in chapter 1 above is one of radical changes. The industrialization and centralization during the reign of the Soviet Union undoubtedly carried with it a number of advantages for the fishery industry. Production was steadily increased until the ecological set backs began. But the centralized administration and control of the fishery industry also meant that it was very difficult for the NAS fishermen to adjust to the new requirements, which were to follow from the novel ecological and economic situation around the time of the dissolution of the union. Therefore, the build up of sustainable new structures in the fishery industry required time, patience, determination – and outside support, as described above. This work has taken place for nearly a decade at present time, and the development has parted with some old structures, kept some of them, and created some new. In general, it can be said that a variety of decisions and initiatives have been re-located to demand more direct involvement of the fishermen, as well as from the managers of the fish treatment plants, and that this development offers both advantages and new challenges for those who wish to deal with fish from the NAS, or with the trade in general, be it as businessmen, project workers, or administrators. To anyone with an interest in the NAS fishery, it is imperative to be familiar with the basic structure within the fisheries today in order to navigate in the complex network of the industry. In this chapter we will therefore seek to give an instructive overview of the present situation, partly to draw “a map” of the actual state of affairs, and partly to thereby give the background for a number of suggestions for improvement, which will be summarized in chapter 3. The description will move from the sea to the table, from the resource to the market, and end with some comments on the role of NGOs.

The resource 

As described above, the species composition in the Aral Sea has undergone many changes during the past century. A variety of fish has been introduced, many of which have again disappeared, and the ichthyologic expertise of the Soviet Union has had a significant influence on this development. In terms of ecological sustainability, it should therefore be emphasized that the flounder Kambala glossa is not a natural inhabitant of the environment, and that its disappearance would, if it should happen, not be a catastrophe – the damage would first of all be economical[7][7]. The management of the resource, which the flounder currently represents, must obviously be careful and take into consideration the recommendations for total allowable catches, which biological expertise can offer, but mainly in order to sustain the flounder as an important source of nutrition and income to the inhabitants of the region.

The monitoring of the stock is thus – especially for economical reasons – very important, and it is most advantageous that the former Soviet, now Kazakhstani ichthyologic institute KazNIIRX has followed the stock since the introduction in the late seventies. The Aralsk branch of the institute, headed by Tenstk Kulmaganbetov, and with biological leader Zauolkhan Ermakhanov, possesses valuable information on the development of the NAS flounder stock. It was the KazNIIRX, which encouraged the trial fisheries already in 1991 (see chapter 1 above), and it was also this institute, which supported fishermen and project workers with estimations of possible catches and optimal fishing grounds during the nineties. Due to the economic recession following the dissolution of the union, the financial situation of the institute has however been quite harsh in recent years. Employing at its peak more than 70 persons, the Aralsk institute today counts only 11 people, most of who are only part time employed, and the institute to a considerable extent depends on outside funding, e.g. in international projects. One of these has been the fishery project, which has been working closely together with the KazNIIRX branch in Aralsk since 1996. Another international cooperation is currently taking place to investigate a number of questions on the NAS ecosystem. A group of specialists, incl. Kazakh, Russian, French and Irish scientists, are – in an INTAS project – monitoring and describing the present situation, incl. the condition of the flounder stock. The following information is based on the preliminary results of these investigations, courtesy of the Kazakhstani biologists Makhambet Tairov and Zhanna Tairova from the INTAS project in collaboration with KazNIIRX, Aralsk.

Based on the biological monitoring, and a number of trial fisheries, the total biomass of the Kambala glossa in the NAS is estimated at 4,500 tons, as of September 2002. The scientists recommend that 30 % of the stock can be caught every year, without damaging the stock. This gives a total recommended catch per year of 1,350 tons. One of the interesting results of the recent investigations is that the stock in the NAS seems to have stabilised, when comparing to the results of investigations in 1998. In 1998, the population of Kambala glossa in the Southern Aral Sea was represented by five generations, and in the NAS only by three. The fact that the flounder population in the NAS is now represented by six generations indicates a stabilisation (similar data are characteristic of the Kambala glossa in the Azov Sea, which is the origin of this species). The flounder feeds mainly on the bivalve mollusc Syndosmia segmentum (71% of the mass from the stomach contents in analysed fish), and on the worm Nereis diversicolor (10%) and smaller fish (11%). Syndosmia and Nereis are abundant in the NAS, and have been for a number of years, and these species of zoo benthos are the main food basis for the Kambala. (Danish fishermen participating in the project are convinced that the high percentage of mollusc in the food composition of the flounder also accounts for its high gastronomic quality.) The condition of the zoo benthos is considered to be the main limiting factor for the productivity of the fish stock in the NAS, and therefore has an important value for the fishery planning. The investigations on the zoo benthos will be extended in the coming years.


As described above, the total catches of flounder have not exceeded 1,000 tons at any point, and accordingly leading ichthyologist at the KazNIIRX institute in Aralsk, Z. Ermakhanov, maintains that the catches might go up further, and that they even should, in order to optimize the conditions for the stock. Having said this however, it is also worth noticing that the statistics of the catches still depend to some extent on estimations, and that the actual numbers might be higher than indicated. Therefore, a careful biological monitoring will be very important in the coming years, as well as an effective and broadly accepted means to ensure that fishermen and salesmen are well informed about the state of the stocks, and about possible sanctions in case of misconduct.

The seemingly stable stock of flounder in the NAS represents an important value to the region. The recommended catches of 1,350 tons/year equals a total value of ca. $500,000. This represents no less than 10 % of the total budget of the region, (which is especially remarkable in the light of the fact that 60-70 % of the budget for a number of years have been given in the shape of government subsidies.) With a well-organised fishery industry and a transparent market structure, the region administration might come to benefit greatly from the trade again. Furthermore, two fields of quite radical improvements are still open: Firstly, the handling and processing of the fish might be improved significantly to heighten the price, maybe up to a doubling of the value, and secondly, the perspectives of a dam construction across the Berg Strait give hope of a very significant increase of the total allowable catches, incl. other species like the valuable pike perch.

The fishermen

The re-structuring of the fishery industry of the Aral region coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a line of forms of organization and conduct, which belonged to that era. As already stated, the break down of the Aralrybprom and its privatized descendant Kyzmet created an empty space at the very heart of the NAS fishery. The resulting transformation process has consequently been especially troublesome to the fishermen, brigades and workers, who were most closely linked to the sovkhoz (i.e. mainly fishermen in Aralsk, Karateren, Bugun, Amanotkel, Akespe, and the technicians and fishermen at the rybprom itself.). The outstanding debts, which were never paid to the local branches of the limited company formerly known as a sovkhoz, put the fishermen and the local leaders in the villages in an awkward situation. In some places, gear was divided among the fishermen to ensure some minimum of outcome from the old factory, in other places very significant sums and amounts of equipment were lost, because of the bankruptcy. All this meant that the independence of the fishermen was for a long time put into objective constraints. The willingness and ability to make the leap from employed worker in a centralized fishery industry to co-owner or active participant in an independent fishery cooperative was naturally delayed by this situation, and only recently have very strong co-operatives begun to function well in the places in question. A number of former and new leaders have had to take significant responsibility in the transition phase. In the kolkhozes, Djambul (roughly equalling the village Zhalanash) on the West side of the sea, and Raim on the East, things have gone considerably smoother. The common responsibility and direct local ownership made the transformation from kolkhozes to co-operatives less troublesome. In both places, fishermen have now re-organized themselves – some still in structures very similar to the old kolkhoz system (in the co-operatives “Djambul” and “Raim”) – others in co-operatives or private companies owned by one or a group of local fishermen.

The Kazakhstani legislation from 1997, which introduced the new conditions for private ownership, resulted in a lot of activity in the fishery project, and eventually in the office of the NGO Aral Tenizi. As the project continued after the successful trial fishery in 1996, a set of conditions were developed to ensure that equipment and credits were given to independent, sustainable and trustable persons. The main evidence of this status was an official juridical document attesting the validity of the group in question as a real juridical body, which can be held responsible for its agreements, pays taxes, etc. During the years, a number of ways of organizing have been developed, and today three main types of juridical bodies are operating in the NAS fishery: fishery co-operatives with one or more owners (in some cases up to 15 owners), limited companies typically owned by a person or an enterprise with brigades of fishermen employed seasonally by contract, and private economies, where one or more fishermen register as a small private company in order to obtain only the most basic juridical rights and obligations. To some extent, the forms of organization tend to overlap (a co-operative might e.g. also have an outside non-fisherman owner, who employs brigades by contract), but in general these three groups can be distinguished. The nuclear unit of the whole business is the brigade, which tends to operate as an independent body, with a brigadier, who represents his group of 3-10 fishermen (usually from the same village), and makes agreements with the project (e.g. in most cases with Aral Tenizi), employers and buyers. The role of the brigade has been bigger than initially expected, and the reason for this should be found in the description of the transition phase above. While most fishermen have a desire to become independent and make their own agreements, the situation in nearly all aspects of the trade has been quite uncertain and changeable in recent years. Juridical insight and access to information and credits, good relations to the authorities etc. have been crucial. Therefore, many fishermen have joined together in small unofficial groups, brigades, which then make agreements with co-operatives, limited companies or other, who take these responsibilities.

Today, there are 45 enterprises registered in the NAS fishery. These in average consist in or employ two brigades, and so the sum total of brigades working in the frame of the fishery project is 92. The number of active fishermen varies a little, but a relatively stable figure for the last 1-2 years says that ca. 600 fishermen are active in the brigades. The brigades are divided across the entire distance of the NAS coast line, from Akbasty in the South-West to Karateren in the South-East. An overview of the number of brigades in 2002, gives this picture:

Akbasty:                    6

Akespe:                     7

Kosaman:                  2  

Tastubek:                  6

Djambul:                  17

Aralsk:                     14

Akshatau:                  3

Kambash:                 1

Akamotkel:                9

Bugun:                     10

Karashalan:               1

Kyzylzhar:                3

Raim:                         1

Shomishkol:              1

Zhanakurilis:             1

Karateren:                10

The challenge for the future co-operation with fishery brigades lies above all in securing that fishermen gain more real influence on their situation, incl. ownership of the means of production. This process has started, and is moving clearly in the direction of decentralization and local responsibility. It should also not be forgotten however that in a number of cases, the ownership of a few or, most frequently, only one person, has been a necessary way of creating sustainable new business structures at all, and that some co-operatives have come to function well in this manner. Many of these will gradually move towards a higher degree of common ownership and involvement of the fishermen. One instructive case can be mentioned: In the co-operative Kuanysh in the village Karateren, which was founded in 1999, fishermen were initially simply joining together to re-group themselves outside the economical and juridical calamities of the old structures. There was to be equal ownership and common decisions on all questions. These aims are still held high, but the way to get there demanded keen and able activity in a number of fields which simply could not be equally detailed managed by all. Co-founder of the co-operative and currently its leader, Batyrkhan Prikeev, tells:

- In the beginning, we were just catching fish. We deducted the expenses for gasoline and victuals from the revenue of the catches, and divided the rest between us. It soon became obvious however that we needed to make investments, to have a sustainable managerial procedure, be clear about legal questions, and so on. Therefore, we started putting more money aside for these purposes and divide our responsibilities. At the moment we are trying to build a structure much like e.g. on a Danish cutter, where 50 % goes to the co-operative (“the ship”), and 50 % to the employees.

In this process, the Kuanysh co-operative, like all or most of the 45 enterprises existing today, has received, and is receiving guidance and support from the office of Aral Tenizi in Aralsk. The NGO, build on the volunteer efforts and experience of a group of former Aralrybprom employees, school teachers, etc., obtained the first and most direct knowledge about the conditions and possibilities for a re-establishing of the fishery industry of the NAS. Being involved in procedures concerning literally all aspects of the fishery, from sea to table, the founders of Aral Tenizi soon became the main experts on how to be registered as a co-operative, where to ask for license to fish, who to sell to, how to raise the price, etc., etc. This bank of knowledge was founded already during the first fortnight of trial fisheries in Tastubek in 1996, and it has taken in every aspect of the development since. Fishermen from the villages have come to Aralsk, asked for advice, made their photo-copies, possibly received credits and gear, and in that way obtained a much more real possibility to try their luck as entrepreneurs in the new economical reality. By way of this procedure, which has developed at very different paces, according to the situation in the village in question, the confidence of the fishermen, the quality of their leaders, etc., the new co-operatives have gradually gained a real influence on their situation. As mentioned, this today means that a number of leaders and owners have a great say about especially the economy of the private fisherman, but it seems clear enough that the development is going in direction of more individual rights and self-management. At the same time, the fishermen are also beginning to see themselves as a group with common interests and means to realize them. In the first years of the transition phase, much attention was given in the villages to the problems of who will get how much – from the assets of the former fish plant, from the international co-operation, etc. – but today the fishermen seem to be on the way to a more sustainable attitude to the questions concerning all involved. Firstly, of course, the aim simply of getting back the sea should not be underestimated as an engine of a feeling of solidarity and common interests. However different the interests of two fishermen meeting near the coast of the NAS might be – in terms of taking care of the relatives, getting more benefits for local schools, improving the physical infra structure in the fish processing, etc. – the long history of the Aral disaster binds them together, and the desire to bring back a viable fishery is equally strong in them. The general assemblies of the Aral Tenizi have become central in this process. Here, in the centre of the region, and just before the fishery season commences, fishermen from all over the region meet to elect their board, to discuss current problems, and to make plans for the future. The first general assembly in 1999 had a historic dimension to it: For the first time in more than 20 years, the fishermen of the NAS met to discuss something real and vital to their trade. More than 500 fishermen showed up, and laid down the foundation to a strong common voice. Secondly, the fishermen have in this process gradually developed views and self-confidence on many fields, in which they share an interest: The relation to buyers, the ways to heighten the quality of the product and hence the price, the relation to the authorities concerning legal questions, taxes, etc., and the acceptance or non-acceptance of outside influence. One example from the 2002 assembly should suffice to illustrate this point:

A small group of influential and very respected personalities in the NAS fishery had decided that the fishery needed an actual fishery organization. The development, they held, had transcended the frames of a grass root- and NGO project, and it was time to create an actual professional body, which could negotiate on behalf of the fishermen, attract investors, and so on. Obviously, the arguments for such an organization were – and are – highly interesting and worth much attention. The question could roughly be put this way: Is the fishery industry of the NAS ready to take full control of its economical, organizational and business functions? However, the events of the general assembly should come to establish the independence of the NAS fishermen in another, and quite surprising way. Having listened to the suggestions from the podium, the fishermen firstly asked the speakers to postpone this discussion till after the election of the board of Aral Tenizi. Slightly astonished and with some hesitation, the speakers accepted this. When the election was finished, the discussion was resumed, but after only a short exchange of opinions, the overwhelming majority of the fishermen stood up and left the conference hall! Why? As indicated, the proposed innovation was indeed interesting, also for the fishermen. However, the presentation of it was not announced in accordance with the agenda for the general assembly, and so the fishermen were left with no real possibility of preparing themselves for the decision, discussing it internally etc. In fact, the initiative came to look for the fishermen as an attempt of concentrating the economical and political power once again, which had just began to work reasonably with the local responsibility. The motivation behind the suggestion might indeed have been to promote and strengthen all the individual co-operatives, brigades, and fishermen, but as it was presented, the fishermen declined it, and demanded more time to prepare a democratically and economically well founded and sustainable alternative. This common, impulsive action would have been unheard of just five years ago.

The regulation and law enforcement

Like in any other place, the relationship between the NAS fishermen and the authorities, are not entirely without complications. The situation in Kazakhstan is unique however in the specific context of post-Soviet market economy. The transformation of the business structures of course needs to be accompanied by a transformation in the relation between private companies and the authorities, and this takes both time and patience. The two main fields of interest to the NAS fishery at the moment are tax-regulation and monitoring of catches. They are often interrelated, and they both undergo changes in these years, which make it difficult to give a lasting picture of the situation. We will try to give some general remarks, though.

Taxes. Being a fisherman in the Aral region today requires, as it has been described, some acquaintance with juridical procedures and tax regulation. The transition phase from state-enterprise to private companies has been particularly difficult in the field of taxation. As it should be obvious to anyone, the NAS fishermen are not in the super league of Kazakhstani economy. In fact, it was considered a real progress that the basic nutrition was improved from the new catches, and the economical improvement in the villages initially simply meant that a fisherman’s family could cut down the expenses for meat. This of course has also been recognized and appreciated by the government representatives in the region, but as the fishing industry is now moving towards a more sustainable business structure, it obviously becomes obligatory to develop a procedure, where all income from the catches is legalized, taxes are paid like from any other occupation, etc. In these years, this process is beginning. It has been developing since 1997 along with the establishing and registration of the new fishery co-operatives, but it would be fair to say that the system still must opt for careful and patient improvements. The area will undoubtedly undergo more changes, and so a detailed description of the system is not highly interesting here. However, just to get a picture of the general situation as of 2002, an example might be instructive.

When a co-operative catches fish, it is responsible for all the taxes needed to be paid. Salary is paid, and generally understood, as salary after taxes. From the revenue of the sale, a co-operative must pay a co-operative tax of 5 %, and from the salary to the fishermen 5 % income taxes, 10 % retirement fund, and 21 % so-called social taxes. Should the co-operative have made a profit after paying all expenses, salaries, taxes, etc., there is a profit tax of 30 % (calculated at the end of the year). Typically, all taxes would amount to somewhere around 50 % of the revenue, and furthermore a co-operative currently needs to pay 4 tenge per kg. for the license to at all catch flounder (more below). Deducting expenses for victuals, gasoline, vehicles, etc., the actual outcome for the individual fisherman is around 10-15 % of the revenue, i.e. for each kg. fish he catches, he receives ca. 3 tenge (or 2 cent (US)). This is a difficult basis for making a living, and as a result, an unknown amount of the catches is never registered anywhere. One story in the region goes that a fisherman and co-operative owner decided to legalize every aspect of his business, and pay all taxes according to the official rules – his fishermen all left him within the week… Nevertheless, things are undoubtedly moving in this area. Legislation has to be adjusted more to the actual circumstances, and the fishermen gradually have to get more familiar with the legal and administrative system. Basically, this is clearly a common aim to pursue for both sides: The society needs the taxes for common expenses, and the fishermen need to feel more safe and sustainable, and genuinely part of the society. Like one fisherman said: “Don’t be mistaken: We would very much prefer to do everything by the book! It would ease our situation significantly, we would be able to trust much more in the agreements we make with buyers, and we wouldn’t have to fear inspections from tax- or nature protection officers.” One strategy, which is very much needed and could improve the conditions of the co-operatives, is to develop clear procedures for tax deduction and depreciation of investments. These legislations are on the way, but they also have to be broadly known and implemented. Actual management courses among fishermen and especially co-operatives bookkeepers and representatives would be highly valuable. 

Licenses. As mentioned in the paragraph on the resources above, the monitoring of the stock and the catches is becoming very important as the (actual) catches are approaching the recommended catches. The law enforcement in this field is the governmental organization on forest and animal protection. This organization has a local office in Kambash on the Eastern side of the NAS, employing 22 people for monitoring the activities in fishery, hunting and forestry – 13 of them working with fishery. Among the important jobs of this organization is to make sure that species on the red list are not hunted or caught, and with the re-emergence of the NAS fishery it has also become the task of this office to administrate the license-system on this field. Roughly, the procedure works like this: At the beginning of the year, a registered fishery co-operative takes part in the tender on (here) flounder catches. Based on the biological estimations and recommendations from the KazNIIRX institute, the government council on hunting and fishing establishes a total allowable catches (TAC) for the year, and this amount is offered for all legal enterprises. At the same time, a price for the license is established – currently 4 tg. per kg. for flounder (for fresh water species, the figure is two-three times higher). To take part in the tender, a co-operative pays 3,000 tenge, and before going fishing, it must buy a license according to the catches expected (if this figure is exceeded, an extension of the license can be bought). This system has worked since 1999, and is still developing. One of the problems obviously is that the relation between the licenses sold and the fish actually caught is not realistic. Estimations of this relation varies from source to source, but is typically described as 1:2, or 1:3. According to leading fishery technologist in the Kambash office, Kemal Zhaimaganbetov, this situation is caused by a lack of employees at the department (“13 people can’t control every fisherman from Akbasty to Bugun”), and by the situation described above that the co-operatives simply can’t afford applying to all the rules. Zhaimaganbetov explains:

- We understand very well the situation of the fishermen, but we have to do our job. I think this phase is difficult for all parties, but hopefully in the future, there will be more coherence between the official system and the activities at sea. We are working together with the tax department of the region administration also, preparing a monthly report for them about the co-operatives, the fishing grounds, the amounts of catches expected, etc., and I think that all three parties will gradually come to work together more smoothly. 

The transportation and treatment

As mentioned above, in the 1950s and 60s the transport of fish to fish processing facilities used to be conducted at sea. This meant a great deal of advantages since the fish could more easily be kept cold, clean and stable. Two preconditions were fulfilled to make this possible: The centralized fishery industry with a well functioning centre of all processing in Aralsk, and of course the simple fact that it was still possible to sail all the way into the harbour. Both of these preconditions, obviously, have not been fulfilled for a long time. The situation today is, as it has been described, that the Aralrybprom is definitively gone, even physically. The reconstruction of the fishing trade has therefore been taking place in a direct fisher-to-fisher cooperation, and the development of the fishery cooperatives clearly indicate a number of the consequences of this. As the many brigades became increasingly well organized and equipped, other problems than “taking fish up from the sea” appeared. The remaining facilities in Aralsk – the Kyzmet (the last and now also dissolved processing branch of the Aralrybprom), the two plants (Aknur and Karasai-Kazi) appearing in the late nineties, as well as the recently established Akbidai-2, have not been able to process the increasing amounts of raw material swiftly and correctly enough to maintain the high standard, which the fresh flounder has. The freezing and storage capacities were simply not enough, first of all during the highly important autumn season from September till November, and the technical skills in the processing still remain to be developed. The fishery project therefore decided to support a build-up of capacity locally, in order to keep the catches cooled and clean. This has resulted in four on site receiving stations in Tastubek, Akbasty, Bugun, and Karateren, and an increased capacity in Aralsk (see map below). Furthermore, it has meant a restructuring of the relationship between fishermen, processing centres, and salesmen. Here follows a short description of each of the receiving stations:

Tastubek. The placement of Tastubek is advantageous for a fishing centre. Being situated some 80 km. from Aralsk, with relatively good roads, it is fairly easy to get the fish out from Tastubek. Furthermore, the access to the sea has been stable during the years of significant instability of the water level in the sea. From the village, it has always been possible to reach the shore via 2-10 km. of less solid and more changeable, but usable roads, and at sea, the access to good fishing grounds has been more than reasonable. (In recent years especially the Akespe Bay North of Tastubek has been rich on flounder). It was therefore natural that Tastubek was the first village to have its own receiving station established, and in 2002, a second container was added to increase the capacity. Currently, the capacity of cold storage exceeds 30 tons. However, a number of improvements are still needed to be carried out. The absence of stable supplies of electricity and clean water has been an impediment to full exploitation of the potential for a receiving station. At present, extra care is required in handling the fish from the boat, to the trucks and tractors, which transport it to the village, and during the washing and cooling/freezing processes at the station. For these purposes, the education and awareness of the fishermen must be heightened, while a professional crew with full know-how on the mechanical, electrical and practical requirements of such a station would also come more than handy. Currently responsible for the station is Dusbai Seitpenbetov.

Bugun. With a placement north of the river mouth, and road connections to Aralsk, the former branch of Aralrybprom in Bugun was also well suited for hosting a receiving station. Local support from the village administration and from the former director of the Bugun Fish branch of Aralrybprom, Askerbek Karatupov (who was also elected the first president of NGO Aral Tenizi in 1999) made it possible to structure a new centre in the village. Good buildings in and around the former bakery have made the surroundings for the container inviting and functional, and the presentation of the renewed NAS-fishery in Bugun during the visit of a delegation including the Kazakhstani prime minister in 2001, was both impressive and fruitful. However, a number of technical, organizational and management problems have for several periods kept the Bugun container out of work. The experiences gained should provide the background for a more stable exploitation of the station in the future, but training is required for all involved. Promising plans of new constructions of electricity- and water supplies make Bugun a very interesting place for development, especially in the case of a successful finishing of the dam construction, which will make the fresh water species a significant source of raw material in the delta area. Currently responsible for the station is Shomen Andizbaev.

Akbasty. The placement of the third receiving station in Akbasty was less obvious than the two preceding. The distance to Aralsk and the condition of the roads spoke to the contrary, and the organization of the fishermen in the town has for many years been far less than optimal. However, the South-Western parts of the NAS have proved to be rich on flounder during a number of years, and the availability of these resources in a marketable condition has depended on a basic first treatment. Transport of the fish at sea to one of the other stations might have been an option, but the condition of the boats at present makes it impossible: The safety of the fishermen would simply be jeopardised. With the support of the local mayor and some strong fishermen from outside, it has been possible to establish a possible future centre in Akbasty, and keep the station functioning. A new structuring of the caretaking of the station in 2002 should strengthen these efforts. Electricity is available in Akbasty, and water reservoirs outside town could provide the future station with plenty of water suitable for fish processing. Training on all levels is required, as well as reinforcement of the station in terms of buildings, processing facilities, etc. New responsible for the station is Shandos Kulmanov.

Karateren. The re-establishing of a fish receiving station in Karateren is a remarkable story. It tells a good deal about the belief in a real and sustainable future of the NAS fishery. In 2000, former salesman Batyrkhan Prikeev and the fishery cooperative Kuanysh (which is shortly described above) were inspired by the results of the fishery project to start planning for a future receiving station in Karateren. As the priorities within the project however made it difficult to prognose, when a container might be provided for the village, Kuanysh decided to start constructing their own. Prikeev gained the rights to use the skeleton of the buildings of the former boat construction plant, and asked the project for a credit to get started. Based on the results and trustworthiness of the cooperative, as well as on the perspectives in realizing the first station based entirely on local initiative, the credit was granted, and the reconstruction of the buildings was immediately started. In 2002, the station still needed a few vital elements for the freezing component, but the rest of the station shows much promise of a busy and well functioning future centre. Facilities for washing, salting, smoking, and storing fish are ready, and the buildings now appear well kept and organized in much detail. Expansion of freezing and cold storage facilities is required.

The three receiving stations (not counting Karateren) together with the new organisation in independent co-operatives have changed the relations between fishermen, fish processors, and buyers/consumers in the following way. While fishermen were traditionally (i.e. during the reign of the Aralrybprom) “merely” catching the fish, and literally leaving it on the shore, or on the deck of mother ships, today they are taking active part in the primary treatment. This has given the fishermen new options. Initially, the privatisation of the fishery industry in Kazakhstan in the early and mid nineties meant a dramatic set back in the position of the fishermen: The (power) structures of the former system remained, while the responsibilities of the central organisations were undermined. The fishermen still depending on other sources to take over the fish immediately after landing were left in no position to bargain: They could agree with the price suggested, or watch the fish deteriorate on the shore. This meant a very low income, which was more often than not paid in the shape of victuals, rather than money. Furthermore, the situation tended to influence negatively to the quality of the fish product. The new and smaller private processing plants did not have the capacity in neither transportation, nor freezing and storage facilities to ensure a sufficient quality of (all) the fish, and as long as the fishermen were without means to take action in this field themselves, the result was a general loss of quality in effect from the moment the fish was landed. This led to a very limited scope of possibilities in selling the fish, and hence to a low price. The plants “solved” this problem by pressing the price towards the fishermen, which again led to a reduced inclination to handle the fish with care. This vicious circle now seems on the way to be broken. Establishing local receiving stations in the villages has obtained two effects: Firstly, the general capacity has been raised, and the immediate handling after landing has been improved. Secondly, the fishermen have obtained a higher level of independence from the processing link. This has been made possible because of the establishing of the licensed fishery co-operatives. One co-operative can now take responsibility for its own catch, transport it to the receiving station, monitor its storage there, and make negotiations with buyers on entirely different conditions than earlier. If one buyer doesn’t want to pay the price, another might show up before the fish is damaged.

There are some caveats to this however. The effects of the receiving stations should truthfully be termed as comparative improvements. As for the first, the improvement of the immediate handling has not been sufficient to manage the increased catches at a satisfactory level. Would the catches have been the same today as they were in 1998, the improvements would have been obvious. But the capacity to cool and store 10-20 tons rapidly becomes less significant, when catches of 5-10 tons are coming in every day, and buyers (in Aralsk or elsewhere) cannot keep up with the speed. As for the second, the independence gained for the fishermen is therefore only relative. When the containers are full, there are only two options: to sell to the price, which the plant can offer, or to stop fishing. (This was the painful dilemma for a number of co-operatives in the early autumn of 2002, when catches were exceeding all expectations).

The receiving stations have proven their worth, but need much improvement to actualise their full potential. Each station needs to be equipped with clean water and stable electricity supplies. At the moment, these requirements are fulfilled at varying degrees on the stations, but it is fair to say that all of them need investments and planning to secure a reasonable procedure. Especially the stations in Tastubek and Akbasty need improvements in the hygienic standards; first of all sand is an issue. All of the stations (especially of course Karateren) need investments in expansion of the storage facilities, and an optimal solution would be to install freezing chambers on each location as well. Furthermore, packing the frozen fish in vacuum packages might be a viable solution of the problems to secure the quality of the fish after the receiving stations. And finally, education on all levels is obligatory. The primary handling of the fish on the boat, and from the boat to the container needs to be absolutely in order to make it possible to create valuable products of frozen and/or vacuum packed fish. It might be very useful to install minor ice boxes on board the boats to ensure that the fish is kept cold from the beginning, especially in those cases, where transport to the local station or to Aralsk is not working well – which is still more often than not the case. Obviously, a field for improvement is therefore also the transport from shore to station, which is now arranged ad hoc with the available tractors, trucks, etc.

The new local receiving stations have meant that the traditionally unchallenged right of the processing link in Aralsk to determine prices, conditions of delivery, etc., has been somewhat disturbed. The cooperatives have obtained more self-esteem and a stronger belief in their abilities to make agreements and take responsibilities independently from former bonds. With improvements in the fields mentioned, the stations will become highly valuable for a quality end product. Nevertheless, there seems to be agreement all around the NAS fishery that a processing and marketing link in Aralsk cannot be disposed of. It is vital to the industry that a group of professional businessmen are establishing and maintaining contact with buyers all over the country and abroad (mainly Russia), in order to make it at all possible to realize the amounts available. Furthermore, the vast unexploited potential of improving the quality of the product can probably best be accessed through a well structured and professional team of experienced workers and managers in the centre. Actual processing in a significant scale, when it will be resumed, is only likely to take place in Aralsk. This in no way contradicts the development in the villages. Receiving stations might be utilised for selling cooled, frozen or even smoked fish directly to outside buyers, as well as delivering raw material to the region centre for further processing, and it should not be forgotten that the capacity to simply take in the catches during the busy autumn months, is still far from being enough in the local centres. At the present time, three private owned fish processing plants exist in Aralsk. Here follows a description of them.

Karasai Kazi. The disintegration of the Aralrybprom has been described at length already, but one aspect of it deserves some elaboration. A small group of junior directors and workers at the Kyzmet (the last, privatized processing link of the big factory) had seen the writing on the wall. Already in 1998, they were seriously planning for a future outside the old structures, and by way of the outstanding debts of Kyzmet – first of all salary – they were able to leave it with some hardware shortly before the final collapse. Centrered around two train wagons with freezing facilities, originally from the nearby Baikonur space centre, and a number of vehicles, they build a small enterprise for fish processing. Contacts to buyers already existed, and the eagerness to build up something new showed much promise. Facilities for washing and storing fish were to be constructed in a hangar near the rail (in Aralsk), and agreements with fishermen were made with able manoeuvring in the old relations between villagers and the sovkhoz, and with good understanding of the new conditions after the emergence of independent co-operatives. Tragically however, most unexpected events were to set back the development of the new plant radically. The founder of the factory Karasai Kazi (the two words in the company name are the names of his two sons), Bakhit Zhuginisov, suddenly died on a winter night together with four colleagues on their way back from the village Amanotkel. It was shortly after new year 2000, and they had gone to congratulate one fisherman with a newborn child – a millennium child. On the way back, they had decided to make a shortcut across the ice of the lake Kambash, but the ice was fragile. Tragic as this event of course was to the families, and to everyone involved with these remarkable people, it was also a great loss to the fish processing industry of Aralsk. Bakhit Zhuginisov was probably the most foresighted and able of all the entrepreneurs in the fishery industry of the region, and the death of him and his friends meant that several chapters in the history books of the re-establishing of the NAS fishery were not written.

Today, the plant is owned by Shanabai Zhuginisov – the father of Bakhit, and run mainly by the Zhuginisov family. Even though the absence of the founder of the place has naturally caused difficulties in management and development, the new leaders are trying to maintain the good relations to fishermen as well as buyers, and to keep a good level of quality in the product. This has been possible to some extent. Unlike other, Karasai Kazi has kept a rather strict policy of only accepting the amounts of fish, they are sure to be able to process, which has generated a relatively stable quality and delivery. 15 people are employed in the season. Two lines of electricity are available (one of them the “red line”, which guarantees delivery, when the common supplies are shut down – which quite often happens), and water is bought from trucks of 4 m3. An annual production of some 200 tons is generating a decent profit for the Zhuginisov family. The relations between the fishery project and the Karasai Kazi have been friendly and fruitful from the beginning. Mutual help and assistance have been provided when needed, mainly in the procedure of receiving containers from Denmark and dividing equipment between the fishermen (the plant has assisted with labour and storage space on these occasions, and has in return been able to use one of the containers as a part of the freezing and cold storage procedure). However, the current situation on the plant is to a significant degree influenced by the wish to maintain status quo. The infra structure of the ground is more or less the same like it was three years ago, and plans to improve it are difficult to discern. There is undoubtedly a potential for improvements in many areas in the plant though. From the transportation of fish from the sea shore or the receiving station, to the packing and delivery – every link of the chain could be improved dramatically to create more efficient procedures, and a higher quality end product. Add to this that only the most basic procedures are currently taking place in the plant (like in the two other described below): washing, freezing, and storing. An actual processing, e.g. cutting fillets, would seem interesting, but the balance between the market and the means of production is clearly not in favour of such a production at the moment. There is much to do to merely maintain and improve the current production, and be able to deliver a clean, well kept and correctly packed whole fish.

Aknur. The second young factory with some experience in the trade is situated in the outskirts of Aralsk. Here, the three brothers Makhsut, Marat and Talgat Zhursimbaev bought the buildings of the former food supply centre of the Red Army division in Aralsk. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a number of the military buildings around Aralsk were abandoned, and most of them were very quickly destroyed and emptied for everything valuable. The three brothers however managed to save these quite big storage facilities and guard them until the company Aknur was founded in 1997. Initially, it was impossible to know that fish would be the raw material of the production at Aknur, but the upcoming of the flounder fishing from around 1998 made it a natural choice. None of the brothers however had distinct knowledge of such production, and they have therefore had to pay the price by trial and error through a couple of years. The plant counts among its staff 23 employed, incl. manager (Talgat Zhursimbaev) and another three administrators. It has been able to expand its capacity gradually, though slowly, in the past five years, and there is much eagerness in the company to make real and valuable business. Retired engineers from the Aralrybprom have been engaged to start up another compressor and hence expand the storage capacity in the plant, and the Zhursimbaevs have a number of ideas to improve the quality of the product. Like in Karasai Kazi however, the basic treatment of the fish currently poses enough challenges to keep all available capacity busy. Director Talgat Zhursimbaev explains:

-       It is true that it should be possible to obtain a higher price for the fish, but at the moment this is extremely difficult. It would require that the handling of the fish from the moment it reaches the shore was significantly improved, and I have to say that the fishermen are very reluctant to take this responsibility. It is good that they have become more independent, but they also need to understand the importance of how the fish is treated after landing. I would like e.g. to introduce a system, where fish of good quality was paid with 40 tenge to the fishermen, while bad quality was paid with only 20 tenge, but at the moment I can’t explain to the fishermen that lower quality is less worth. If we really wanted to heighten the prices, we should keep a good quality at all levels and deliver the fish packed in boxes, to be sold individually, instead of like now in sacks. Today, our costumers are very often relatively poor workers, buying from sacks on markets in the cities, whereas a correct handling could enable us instead to sell to shops. All of this requires quite a lot of investments, and we can only move with the speed, which our income and loans allow.

Aknur has taken part in the fishery project on a couple of occasions, most importantly in the 2000 experiment to treat 150,000 kg. of flounder according to “European standards” for selling in the bigger cities.

Akbidai-2. The youngest of the three private fish processing plants in Aralsk is Akbidai-2, which opened its activities in 2002. The immediately noticeable novelty in this event was that for the first time, new equipment was brought to Aralsk from the outside on Kazakhstani initiative and expense. The background of the story is this. A couple of years ago, Kuandyk Abekenov, a cousin of the late Bakhit Sjuginisov, wanted to start a small company of his own. He was planning to create a bread production, since he had worked in this field before, but was hindered from this by external events. When at the same time a third cousin, Murat XX, who was working with fish processing in Rudnyj, some 1,000 km. North of Aralsk, wanted to get a more stable contact to the NAS fishery industry, the idea to create a new fish processing plant in Aralsk seemed obvious. Murats Rudnyj plant – Rudnyj Balyk – had already started buying fish from Aralsk, and it had become a popular item in the Northern oblast, where many Russians live. (Flatfish transported from Russia would typically cost around 140-150 tenge/kg., while flounder from Aralsk can be sold at 60-70 tenge.) The cousins decided to take the leap and purchased part of the former bus station in Aralsk. In this place, the new equipment – a freezer and a cold storage from the Russian company Ostrov – was placed in October 2002. The company Rudnyj Balyk was finally motivated to start an independent line of production in Aralsk, when they won a tender in the Kostanai Oblast to provide public institutions, hospitals and prisons with fish for the autumn 2002. The order was to deliver 45 tons of flounder from Aralsk, and the new company Akbidai-2 got a busy opening season on these terms. Agreements with fishermen from Tastubek – and other co-operatives operating from the Tastubek receiving station – were made to start fishing slightly earlier than usual, and transport from Tastubek to Rudnyj was arranged. A number of factors made this deal more complicated than expected – the installation of the new hardware from Russia was delayed, a lack of expertise in the Akbidai-2 plant in Aralsk meant difficulties in establishing rational procedures for handling the fish, and the overwhelming catches meant that the receiving station in Tastubek could not keep up with the incoming fish. In the one month after the agreement was made, 150 tons were caught. (This situation came to mean a great deal to the rest of the autumn season, as it meant that all capacity was overbooked before the season really was supposed to start. Managers in all three processing plants were caught unprepared, and a significant amount of fish was wasted. The lesson seems clearly to be that preparation for the autumn season is extremely important, and that agreements between fishermen and processing plants need to include specific agreements on how to secure the quality, when the optimal route from sea to table cannot be maintained – which is in fact very rarely the case.) It is difficult to assess the results of Akbidai-2 on the basis of the short period, it has functioned, and on the basis of only a few interviews, but there is no doubt that the seriousness of the managers, the hardware already installed, and the direct access to the Northern Kazakhstan and Russian market, represent a very significant potential. Specific experience in fish processing however needs to be obtained – by way of training or as a minimum employment of more skilled workers from the former sovkhoz, and a thorough rethinking of all the links of the chain from sea to table is needed.

In general, it can be said that the three fish processing plants are navigating in a very complex terrain. The efforts to keep the business running are so much preoccupying the owners and managers that it everywhere tends to influence the quality of the product. The sometimes totally absent preparations for the autumn season is the most striking example of this – economical stress and inability to employ (season) workers, before the catches start coming in often mean that the plant is a few steps behind, already at the beginning of the season. Investments on nearly all fields of transportation (refrigerated trucks), handling (washing, storing), freezing (capacity and stability), and management (training, credits) are needed. Having said this, all of the three plants also have shown that the potential for a profitable fish processing business in Aralsk is real, and that a structured effort to reinforce the quality of the product could mean a great boost in the trade. Like the fishery co-operatives, the processing plants need support in planning investment strategies and specifically a way to introduce depreciation in future loans. The vicious circle of inability and unwillingness to take responsibility for the quality of the fish needs to be broken. The receiving stations are one of the key stones in this process, and a radical improvement of the processing facilities in Aralsk is another.

The recommendation of this report is in general to improve on all links of the treatment from sea to table. The fishery co-operatives and the receiving stations have proven to be vital first links of this chain, and improvements can be made directly and transparently there. In the Aralsk processing link however, the picture is less clear. The upcoming of new business opportunities have generated the three minor private enterprises described above, which have managed their possibilities at varying degrees of success. Five years after the first steps towards the new NAS fish processing industry were taken; it is still a fragile and extremely troublesome business. The continuously lacking preparations for each season give rise to some concern, just as the investment strategies seem to be very much constrained from economic difficulties and lack of progressive management know-how (plus the still relatively undeveloped tax regulations and credit options mentioned above). Credits or grants for innovative investments, and training on all levels, from processing routines to business management would therefore be very much welcomed.

We believe however that the processing link is in acute need of inspiration and this to such an extent that a real effect might only be generated by a genuinely new initiative. As it appears, the most significant resources and experience in treatment and management in fish processing are actually situated in the NGO – Aral Tenizi (more on the NGO below). Furthermore, a number of highly qualified workers, mainly women, from the former sovkhoz are still now not employed in any of the new enterprises. This seems to be so because of a lack of ability in the plants to take seriously the demands for handling the fish correctly, and an absence of means to implement actual processing facilities and procedures, such as vacuum packing, cutting fillets, etc. The current situation thus has two important aspects:

·      The amounts of fish caught are significantly exceeding the capacity in the processing link. The latter is constrained by economical difficulties, lack of innovative management, and lack of qualified personnel in the treatment of the fish.

·       Human resources are available locally with valuable knowledge on as well treatment as management.

To find a way out of this dilemma, this report recommends that a new initiative be established. The pilot experiments within the frames of the fishery project (in 1998 and 2000) have shown that careful monitoring of each step in the treatment might actually improve the quality of the product significantly, and consequently the price. However, the experiments have not generated a lasting effect (due to the difficulties described above), and therefore it seems logical to try to sustain the positive results from these experiments by building up an additional receiver in Aralsk from the ground, so to say. This has not been possible until now, because the ownership of such a new initiative would be vulnerable to outside influence and even takeover of the assets (which in the case of the Aralrybprom led only to bankruptcy and inactivity). Now however, the fishermen have reached such a level of sustainability and engagement that they themselves might become the de facto owners and decision makers in such a new initiative, and while a new initiative based on a few bright heads might fall prey to more powerful actors, a broad and strong community of fishermen are very unlikely to be overthrown, if their organization is carefully build, and democratically stable. This is possible through Aral Tenizi. By building on the available know-how in the local society, structuring the processing directly according to recommendations from technicians and specialists (on Kazakhstani and Danish side), and securing a logical infra structure of the plant, a genuine attempt might be made at sustaining the general virtuous circle in the fishery industry. The capacity in Aralsk needs to be build up, the procedures in the handling need to be improved, and the fishermen need a higher price for their fish. A solution might be suggested along these lines – though the actual design will of course depend on local decisions and current conditions:

  • Common ownership through Aral Tenizi, based on the responsibility and engagement of the fishermen, and the democratically structures of the now well-founded society. An executive direction should be appointed by the board of Aral Tenizi.
  • Establishing of a fishery centre in Aralsk, which contains a minor fish processing plant build up from the ground on carefully considered principles of handling and processing, office facilities for Aral Tenizi and fishery cooperatives, facilities for cultural and leisure activities of the fishermen, etc.
  • The centre might also represent a possibility to rationalize the needs of the cooperatives in purchasing new tackle, obtaining information and counselling etc., after the Danish partners have withdrawn.

The fundamental requirement for the success of such an initiative would be involvement and participation of the fishermen on all steps from the idea over implementation to day-to-day management. This will ensure that investments and donations to such an institution will not run the risk of being exploited by only a few “business-men”, but be genuinely put to use to the benefit of the local communities. Currently, the fishermen themselves, the experience gathered in the NGO, and the unemployed skilled labour from the former state enterprise together represent the most liable foundation for a new initiative in the processing. Ideally, such an initiative would create a new optimism in the processing link, and either expands to administrating the majority of the catches, or inspiring the three already existing private enterprises to profit from the experiences gained. Either way, action is needed, and the freshness from an entirely new partner based on local involvement and ownership seems the most recommendable solution at the present moment 

The market

Just like the treatment needs to be improved significantly, the marketing of the flounder is also only beginning to be established. Having worked for recognition of the flounder as a valuable and delicious fish since 1996, the fishery project has been able to lay down the foundation for a future market. Modest beginnings – like small events on the market square in Aralsk – have grown into bigger promotions. The two experiments in 1998 and 2000, where 23,000 kg. and 150,000 kg. respectively were monitored by the project all the way to the receivers in the cities, are the most significant of these efforts. They have shown that consumers are happy to eat the Aral flounder, when it is treated well, but also that it is extremely important to maintain high standards – every time a shopkeeper or factory owner receives a poor quality, he will be reluctant to take any fish from the region for a period of time. The market for Aral flounder can be divided geographically into five main categories – from local to global:

i.              The local consumption of flounder has grown dramatically since the first significant catches in 1996. Initially, the people around the sea were not happy to try the new fish. Kazakhs have no tradition for eating flatfish, and it was received only reluctantly with some discomfort about this strange creature with two eyes on top of the head. After a couple of years however, as more and more people actually tasted the fish, the reservations were given up. Now, it is a very popular dish in literally all the villages around the NAS, and is prepared in many different ways – with the fried variant as by far the most popular. Like already mentioned, this has meant a valuable input to the diet – which was to a very high degree based on meat from sheep, cows, horses and camels, besides the effects it has consequently had on the economy.

ii.             Besides the fish which is brought directly home with the fishermen, there is a trade between fishermen and non-fishermen within the villages, which is difficult to estimate. The trade of provisions though has a big natural place in the economy of the country side, and the flounder no doubt has come to play an important role in this game. As the fishery improves, so does the trade. One story already in 2001, showed that the market was expanding: A fisherman had traded fish for other products with some ladies in his village, and became slightly offended when he heard that they had immediately sold them on to costumers in the town Kazalinsk, South-East of Aralsk on the railroad. Like he said: “I might have sold them there myself immediately, then”.

iii.            The receiving stations are beginning to function more directly as a link to outside buyers. In the winter time, when the temperature reaches minus 30 degrees Celsius, the buyers appear by themselves on the shore and start bargaining with the fishermen (which is the main explanation of the big part of the catches, which is sold outside of the tax- and license- system.) But also during the autumn season, contacts are being made with businessmen, who come to the stations with their own vehicles and take fish. This trade is not yet very significant, except from the fact that it has strengthened the tendency of making the fishermen more independent from the Aralsk plants.

iv.             The major player in the game however is the processing link in Aralsk. Due to the capacity to freeze and keep fish cold, this link still has and will continue to have a central part to play. It is estimated that around 400-600 tons of fish per year have gone through the three plants in recent years, and this figure should only be expected to go up. The recipients of the fish from the plants are remainders of the former sokhoz system in places like Rudnyj, Uralsk, Aktobe, Cheskasgan, Astrakhan, Karaganda, and Almaty. Furthermore, private customers in shops and on markets are receiving fish in Leninsk, Kyzylorda, Aktobe, Kokshetau, Kostanai, Astana, and other places. In general, the places, where Russian customers are plenty, are better markets for the Aral flounder, since Kazakhs outside the Aral region are still reluctant to eat flatfish. The access to the Russian market will therefore be important in the future, and the present contacts to Rudnyj, Petropavlovsk, Barnaul, and similar places might be the first steps in that direction. The single most important issue in this process will be to heighten the quality of the product and create a new awareness of the fish from Aral. The “brand” Aral Fish must come back to its old dignity and be respected for trustworthiness, quality, and a good buy. Like repeatedly mentioned, the potential to improve in these fields, is vast.

v.              The foreign market is, except from the contacts to the Southern Russian market, unexamined. This has obvious reasons, when you consider the difficult conditions in the processing links, but the option should not be left out of sight for the future. The quality of the flounder is so high that it could be a real object for trade in many Russian cities, and the roe is both delicious and highly appreciated in many places, e.g. in Japan. To come to exploit this potential however, every single aspect of the treatment must be improved, and a system of processing, freezing, and (e.g. vacuum) packing must be made stable and efficient. Another reason to maintain this perspective is the possibilities offered in the future biological changes of the NAS. When the dam across the Berg Strait will be ready, and the fresh water species will start returning, a very big potential for a variety of production forms will be available. This includes first of all the pike perch, which is an obvious item for export.

The market for fish from the Aral Sea seems to be very real. Fish is in general a treasured food item in both Kazakh and Russian families, and the population of the bigger cities will not be overwhelmed by 3,000-4,000 tons of fish from Aralsk, especially considering that the price can be kept comparatively low, even at improved production procedures. When correctly treated, we believe that the value of the flounder might be doubled, and the catches might go up still further, depending on the consequences of the dam construction. The prognosis from the KazNIIRX and the KaGidroPoVodKhoz indicates that the Western parts of the NAS will maintain salinities as high as 17 mg/l, which will be enough for the reproduction of the flounder. In this case, the conditions for the stock would be optimal. Many factors influence on this development, but even in a much more modest scenario with regards to the flounder, there is still basis for optimism, since a lower salinity will undoubtedly mean a richness of species, which will only improve the conditions for the fishery industry. The exact composition of the relation between flounder vs. fresh water species in the total catches is difficult to anticipate, but we believe it to be realistic that a total of 3,500 tons of fish might be reached five years after finishing the construction work, i.e. in 2010. An estimation of the situation in the NAS fishery trade at that time tells that the total value of the production might reach US$ 3,000,000.


The non government organisation “Aral Tenizi” was founded in December 1998. Its founders were first of all the volunteers, who had participated in the fishery project since 1996, i.e. a group of people counting school teachers, former employees at the Aralrybprom, and the local staff of the UNDP office in Aralsk. The common work in the fishery project was motivated by a wish to join forces with anyone, who concretely had trustworthy ambitions of supporting the fishermen in the struggle to win back their jobs, and – maybe more abstractly – wanted to make the voice of Aral heard in national and international political discussions. When it had become clear that there was a real potential in the flounder fishery, the need for a more structured local responsibility became obvious. The founders of the society decided to work hard to convince fishermen and other inhabitants of the region of the necessity of a new NGO, which could be responsible partner of the fishery project, and on the statutory general assembly in September 1999, the efforts were awarded. A board of seven was elected by more than 500 fishermen, with former director of the Bugun Fish branch of the Aralrybprom, Askerbek Karatupov, as president, and a chain of command and communication was build between board, staff, and members. The society moved into its new headquarters in the centre of Aralsk (Makataev Street) already around new year 1999, and in the following years, equipment was brought in from Denmark and elsewhere, while staff and volunteers continuously elaborated new ways of improvements, things to repair, construct, etc. Today, the office consists in a meeting room and an accounting office on the ground floor, and an office with internet access, a regular office, a bath, and a two-room apartment for visitors on the first floor.

The purpose of Aral Tenizi is to work for the re-establishing of the Aral Sea as a fresh water lake, and to support the NAS fishermen and their families. These aims have in the period from the foundation until present day been sought fulfilled mainly in the fishery project, but recently, a number of other initiatives have been made, involving a broad spectrum of volunteers, and other international organisations. The board is elected on the general assembly, which is held each year in September or early October – the first four years with an average participation of more than 500 people. Since 2000, the amount of members has been relatively stable around 1,000 persons.

The board meets regularly (typically every second month, but in the fishery season and around the general assembly more frequently), and decides on principal questions between the general assemblies. Since the first assembly, the majority of the board elected has been fishermen. Geographically, most of the NAS area has been represented, with fishermen from Karateren, Bugun, Amanotkel, Kyzylzhar, Aralsk, Zhalanash, and Tastubek. This has meant that the board has also been able to play an important role in local mobilisation in the villages, where now 14 volunteer centres have been established, and that fishermen in the villages represented have had a more direct source of information about news in the trade, from the fishery project etc. As responsible body in front of the general assembly, the board has furthermore been active in the procedures around the division of equipment (nets, clothing, and other tackle) from Denmark.

The staff of the society has mainly been employed by the fishery project to solve a long list of practical problems, and to build up the organization to be ready to take over all responsibility at the termination of the project. Like already mentioned, this work has meant from the beginning that a number of areas were to be explored, and decisions had to be made in questions, which were quite unfamiliar to the involved. In fact, the whole range of issues connected to the flounder fishery, as described in this chapter - “from sea to table” – has been worked through by the Aral Tenizi staff, with hands on experience at every level. A very significant stock of experience and expertise has been built from this, especially around a group of three central persons, who have been taking part in the project and the society from the beginning: Akshabak Batimova, former leading fishery technologist on the Aralrybprom, volunteering from the first days of the trial fishery in Tastubek 1996, and since October 2002 elected president of Aral Tenizi. Zhannat Makhambetova, teacher of physics and chemistry from Aralsk, volunteering as translator from the beginning of the project, working as the co-ordinator from Kazakh side in the period 1998-2001, elected president of Aral Tenizi in 2000 and 2001, and currently working in Almaty, but still active in questions concerning the society. And bookkeeper Karakoz Zhumakhmetova, active part of the project since 1998, currently main economist of Aral Tenizi. This group undoubtedly represents the most detailed and in-depth knowledge of the NAS fishery at the present time, first of all because of a direct and unbroken contact with literally all the fishermen, who have taken up fishing on the NAS again. Every aspect of the new situation has been discussed and dealt with practically in this group, and the results and future perspectives of this work have been presented to and discussed with local and oblast administration, government representatives, and a number of international organizations at all levels. Around this core, a number of volunteers and employees have been attracted to strengthen the scope and capacity of the society, especially office manager MA Akmaral Utemisova, assisting bookkeeper Gulnar Ainasheva, and the engines behind the volunteer centres in the villages, Rosa Kazambaeva, Bakhitshamal Zhuginisova, and Kemal Shanabai. Furthermore, a group of Young Ecologists and filmmakers have been established, with Kanagat Makhambetova and Nurdulla Balmanov as the central figures.

During the years, the office of Aral Tenizi has come to function as the centre of NGO environmental work in the Aral region, but first and foremost of course, it is been the office of the NAS fishermen. This is the place to go, if you have questions concerning juridical problems, economical quarries, ideas for innovation, or just want to hear news from the general situation in fishery. One of the central tasks of the society has been to provide micro credits for the fishermen in the period before the season starts, and to divide and monitor the nets brought in from Denmark. This job has been carried out with remarkable results, when considering the conditions under which it was conducted. In exchange for the assistance, the fishery co-operatives provide the staff with all relevant information about their activities, in order to make the priorities of the NGO work as rational and efficient as possible. Interviews are continuously made with all active brigades (i.e. at the moment 92), and a full bank of knowledge is available through Aral Tenizi on how much fish is caught, where the best fishing grounds exist, which improvements are needed at the receiving stations, who has the capacity to carry out specific tasks, etc., etc.

Having said this, it is also important to underline that the society is still relatively young and fragile. The assets available through the society pose a real interest to industrious people from many lines of business, and the democratic security system of the society is still being developed. Until now, the fishermen have taken responsibility during the general assemblies, when vital issues have been at stake, but to ensure the sustainability of the society, it is extremely important to maintain and further develop a strong network of volunteers and trained employees, who are familiar with the democratic procedures of the NGO, and with good management of such organisations. (A future fishery centre in the frame of Aral Tenizi with heavy fishermen participation as suggested above would be one way of strengthening the entire organization). A (further) capacity building is vital in all areas and at all levels, and could have very important results in the coming years. Three main focus areas should be given attention in this matter: The board, the staff, and the village volunteers. Training in NGO management, credit schemes, and the role of volunteer work and the civil society, would be welcomed warmly. More specifically, the credit scheme of Aral Tenizi has until now existed only within the frames (and on behalf) of the fishery project. This has meant a limited ability to move, and the absence of a possibility to charge interest rates. To enable a continued, and hopefully expanded credit scheme (which the fishermen need), some structure must be created to enable Aral Tenizi – or another organization – to give realistic micro credits on market terms.

As it has been mentioned above, any outsider with an interest in the NAS fishery has the unique advantage of simply being able to contact the society and get real updated knowledge and advice on any field of interest. Implementation of a range of concrete projects can be done through the society. There is no doubt that a continuation of the efforts to re-establish the NAS fishery, e.g. in the frame of the World Bank project on the Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea, must and will naturally take advantage from this situation. This document is supposed to draw a map of the historical and structural background of the new possibilities in the NAS fishery – but things change quickly in the region these days, and it will be highly recommendable to join forces with the most capable on the field. In the concluding chapter, we will sum up the contours of the map presented here, and give more general recommendations for the work to be done in the future.

Chapter 3: Shaping a Course for the Future

The NAS fishery is back. This much can be concluded from the two preceding chapters. It seems certain also that the NAS itself is now finally facing a period with more stability. Hopefully, the Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea project will do two things: Ensure a bigger inflow to the NAS, and ensure that the water does not immediately disappear into the atmosphere. According to the plan of the construction work, the water will not come to reach Aralsk again, at least not within the immediate perspective. But much less can do great things for the NAS fishery. A species richness and a stable, bigger lake will probably triple the total allowable catches in the NAS, even during a relatively short time span, and provide the basis for a serious expansion in all links of the industry. If this scenario becomes reality, the fishery industry needs support. To make sure that the resource is exploited in a sustainable and profitable way, many things have to be improved. Handling, treatment, transportation and processing must reach a higher and more stable level, and a lasting positive impression of the Aral Fish must be established among consumers. All these things are true also in the present situation. The capacity of the fishery industry in the Aralsk region is not at the moment big enough to handle the 1,350 tons of flounder, which are currently recommended to be the maximum catches. They can be caught very soon, and probably will be – since the fishermen have made a fast and significant progress since 1996. But they cannot with the present capacity, at least not all of them, be handled correctly after landing. We therefore recommend that improvements are supported in all fields of the NAS fishery industry. Along the way, some of these have been suggested, and let us here summarize and draw a couple of conclusions on each field. We will look at first on the overall approach to the NAS fishery, and then on the more concrete strategies for investments.

Involvement and decentralized management

It has been underlined several times along the way that the way to approach the development of the NAS fishery, is by way of involvement and decentralisation. This obviously can be seen as an ideal in agreement with the approach recommended in general by some of the most influential institutions on the field (see especially the World Development Report 2003): To create a sustainable development, it is needed to involve the people concerned in decisions and planning as much as possible. It is however, as it has been repeatedly stated in this report, also from another, and more practical point of view necessary to take such an approach to the contemporary NAS fishery. The transition phase from the former Soviet structures in the sovkhoz- and kolkhoz system has been particularly difficult to the NAS fishermen, for reasons mentioned above. This has resulted in a process, where one of the most vital aims has been to relocate responsibility and initiative from central decision-makers to local groups and individuals. During the time span of the fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea”, this has been a simple necessity: The structures from the former system simply didn’t exist, or they were extremely fragile and unable to make trustworthy agreements (with some reservation with regards to the two kolkhozes, though, which have managed to make a more gentle shift from the Soviet organizational system to contemporary Kazakhstani reality.) Therefore, the independent co-operatives founded from 1997 and onwards, had to be trusted, and had to take on the responsibility to develop the fishery. With a lot of difficulties and discussions along the way, this has happened. Fishermen have taken responsibility for their own boats and tackle, they have established themselves in the 45 new enterprises, and they have joined together in the society Aral Tenizi, showing ability to make strong common decisions when required. Most of the enterprises and institutions now existing might not look like streamlined business machines, and there are still cases of radically different comprehension of agreements, insecurity about legal questions, etc., but the general trend behind this is clear enough. The initiative has moved to the villages, to minor co-operatives, and to individuals. When this fact has been understood, it offers plenty of advantages. It is today possible to make agreements – about business, development programs, or credit schemes – with legal organizations on literally every link in the chain of the fish production, from sea to table. Let us highlight the main types:

  • The biological monitoring of the stocks has been taken care of in the KazNIIRX institute. This scientific institution still has its Aral branch with full knowledge available on the entire history of the flounder, and other species prior (and possibly posterior) to it. The institute has experience from working in international projects, and is currently working together with a group of esteemed international experts on a number of issues concerning the NAS ecosystem.
  • The fishermen have regrouped. On each location all around the NAS, it is today possible to find trustable partners, and to find worthy participants in projects with the aim of sustaining the positive development in the NAS fishery. Through the staff and board of the society Aral Tenizi, it is possible to get full information and guidelines to any such request.
  • The receiving stations are in the process of becoming stable, and well organized players in the game. They need however more time to develop sustainable management structures, before actual binding agreements can be made with the stations as such. Until such a situation will be reached, it is possible to make equally profitable agreements on the utilisation and expansion of the centres with the fishery co-operatives and Aral Tenizi.
  • The fish processing plants are ripe for improvements. The three existing fish industries in Aralsk are capable and ready to make agreements, which will improve the infra structure of the fishery and the handling of the fish on each step. Expertise is available through the plants, and through Aral Tenizi, for consultancy on practical matters. An innovation in the shape of a new fishery centre based on fishermen ownership and participation through Aral Tenizi is recommended.
  • A few minor shops exist in Aralsk, which call for radical improvements. In the larger cities, more equipped and experienced markets and stores exist, which can make out the final link between fisherman and consumer. The fishery project has devoted little attention to this final link, and there is much land to explore in marketing, trading, and hygienic standards. Contacts are available through Aral Tenizi.
  • Training in business management, democratic organization, environmental issues, co-operation between government and non-government institutions, etc. is very much requested on many levels in the region. Real and effective agreements on this can be made through Aral Tenizi.

This approach of involvement and decentralization may seem to oppose the dream about re-establishing the “real” NAS fishery industry. In both ecological and economical discussions there has been a general trend to expect the Aral Sea disaster to be resolved “once and for all” – or not at all. For many people, the NAS fishery will only be back, when a big, central fish processing plant is ready to rationalize and centralize the production. It should not be forgotten in this respect that the dream of a well functioning and stable central fish processing plant in Aralsk is shared vividly by many fishermen, incl. some of those who have reached a significant level of independence already. Furthermore, the handling of the fish even at the present time requires a good and effective processing in Aralsk. But it is the central result of the investigations and experience behind this report that there is no contradiction in on the one side the need of a well functioning fish processing industry in Aralsk, and on the other, maintenance and strengthening of the local initiatives and structures in the fishery co-operatives, receiving stations, etc. A sensitive and reasonable investment strategy, which furthers the local initiatives as well as the central processing facilities, might very well be the right solution for the current situation. What should be emphasized is that the approach to this question must take into consideration that the NAS fishery today consists in a wide variety of more and less independent actors, all of which will (rightfully) demand to be heard in the decisions to be made.  

Investment strategies

The ambitions to revive an Aralrybprom-like fish processing plant in Aralsk might become realistic in a scenario of a stable and rich fresh- or brackish water environment with an improved infra structure of roads and harbours, e.g. in 15 or 20 years time from now. At the present time however, innovations in the processing link should be based on the existing manifold of actors, and specifically on fishermen participation. This will probably make the outcome more modest than intended by some of the many, who have dreamed about the return of the “old” structure, but a carefully structured fishery centre in Aralsk based on NGO involvement and fishermen ownership might be a novel way of reviving the common ambitions of a high quality and productive processing industry, while at the same time promoting the local responsibility in handling the fish on the boats and the receiving stations.

-       Focusing on the processing link in Aralsk, without a strategy to develop the receiving stations in the villages, and improving significantly the primary handling of the fish, would require a very significant improvement of the conditions for transportation of fish. The former system of reloading to mother vessels, which brought the fish to Aralsk, seems highly unrealistic even on very long term. Another possibility would be to improve a number of roads drastically, and invest seriously in vehicles with cooling systems. A third, to construct a central receiving harbour, e.g. in Tastubek, rebuild the roads from there to Aralsk, and improve and partly exchange the fleet of minor fibre glass vessels, in order to make it possible to cross the NAS, e.g. from the river mouth or Akbasty – to Tastubek. These latter improvements (of roads, quay systems, and transportation facilities) might be very rational in any case, but again, a one-sided investment strategy, which binds all efforts in the wish of a big, central enterprise (state- or shareholder owned), might fall prey to unfortunate conditions, insufficient planning, incapable leaders, economical instability, etc. Investments should be aiming at strengthening all links of the sea-table chain, and they should be implemented in close collaboration with local expertise. Again – a fishermen owned centre in Aralsk with a processing link seems to be a viable alternative: acknowledging the need for (radical) improvement of the processing link in Aralsk, while at the same time ensuring involvement and flexibility.

 On this background, the following concrete fields of investment are suggested:

The resource

Monitoring of the stocks is vital. The current initiatives on this field are limited to the scope of the scientific projects, and it is very important that lasting systems of monitoring and recommendations are developed. Until now, the relation between the KazNIIRX institute, the governmental department on fishery and forestry, and the fishermen, is mainly an outwards relation. Especially in the current situation, where the relation between recommended catches, official catches, and actual catches, is quite unclear, it is important that the fishermen take responsibility for the sustainability of the methods and efforts applied. This has been the case, as a matter of fact, in the transference of the fishing from the small fresh water lakes and the delta river system, to the NAS. Now, it is becoming a central concern that similar engagement is shown in the management of the NAS resources, in order to sustain the valuable resource, which is now available. Aral Tenizi has already been arranging seminars involving biologists, administrators and fishermen, and this strategy should be strengthened. Involvement is, once again, the key word to obtain actual and trustable sustainable management.

è    Items for investment: biological staff, education of biologists and training (awareness building) of fishermen, scientific equipment, capacity building in the governmental organizations on natural resource management.

The fishermen 

The fishery co-operatives are still, for the majority, on the way to becoming stable, independent, legal local bodies. Much capacity building is still needed, both in terms of management know-how and equipment. The co-operatives will undoubtedly play the central part in the efforts to create a sustainable future fishery on the NAS, and they are also the key to a radical improvement of the fish treatment after the actual catching.

è    Items for investment: boat repairing, and ideally renewal of the entire NAS fishery fleet, maintenance of nets (workshops), ice-compartments on board the vessels, tackle for correct handling of the fish from net to receiving station (plastic buckets, means of transportation), management courses (mainly for leaders and engaged fishermen), capacity and awareness building (for all fishermen).

 The regulation and law enforcement

 As described above, the central issue in the regulation is to develop realistic recommendations, and – even more importantly – realistic means of monitoring their appliance. Pure capacity building of the law enforcement seems unsustainable without a balanced approach, which involves the fishermen. Agreements must be made on how to administrate the total allowable catches, and ensure a fair and understandable enforcement.

Laboratories monitoring the hygienic standards in fish processing, which were formerly situated in the Aralrybprom, are now absent in Aralsk. Local sanitarian control is functioning, but needs updating, and a central specialized laboratory for fish production would be a significant improvement.

è    Items for investment: seminars involving all interested parties, capacity building in law enforcement and region administration (incl. courses on ecological sustainability and user participation), transparency in legislation and administration on fish resources.

è    Facilities for establishing an Aralsk fish production monitoring laboratory, incl. preliminary studies on the juridical and economical structure of such an institution. 

The transportation and treatment

The receiving stations need both material and managerial development to exploit the potential, they represent. The needs on the four stations vary (see chapter 2, above), but an overall description of the central fields in need of improvement can be given. When further developed, the receiving stations should, in co-operation with the fishery co-operatives, ensure a high quality of the handling of the fish from sea to clean, hygienic cold storage.

The infra structure needs improvement. Some of this might be provided by initiatives external to the fishery trade – especially such appearing in the frame of the dam construction, and in connection with other interests, e.g. oil fields under exploration in and near the Southern Aral Sea. Other improvements can be made by way of basic principles using gravel dikes (the road between Zhalanash village and Aralsk is a fine example of this). Experience has also been obtained in constructing minor mobile quay systems. This must be developed.

The fish processing plants need improvement in all areas – basically “everything is there”, but can be improved gradually. An innovative attempt at setting up a sustainable example of the correct treatment and processing is recommended 

è    Items for investment: On the receiving stations: electricity supply, access to clean water, improvement of hygienic standards (protection against sand, development of rational and swift procedures), enlargement of cold storage facilities, instalment of freezing chambers, and possibly vacuum packing, capacity building (especially technical and mechanical courses, and management for both responsible administrators at the stations, and local fishermen: how to divide the costs, how to improve the prices?).

è    Transportation from receiving stations to Aralsk in closed, refrigerated trucks, improvement of infra structure (roads, especially on the distances: Akbasty-Akespe, Akespe-Aralsk, Tastubek-Zhalanash, Ysh-Schocke-Aralsk, Bugun-Aralsk, Karateren-Bugun, and/or sea transport – incl. strong and mobile quay systems).

è    Increased cold storage capacity in Aralsk, increased amount of freezing chambers, improvement of hygienic standards (training, development of rational and swift procedures, access to clean water, protection against mud, etc.).

è    Creating a genuine innovation of the processing link in Aralsk, through a fishery centre owned by the fishermen, in the frame of Aral Tenizi. This centre could be expanded to house a variety of functions in the interest of the fishermen, but first of all it should be a logical and well structured role model of correct treatment, based on local experience and external consultancy. Processing work shops for cutting fillets, vacuum packing, smoking, salting, etc. should be included.

The market

The Kazakhstani market economy has developed dramatically since 1991. The legislation alone requires professional and permanently updated knowledge. Furthermore, marketing of fish seems today to be consisting mainly in talking on the telephone with general directors of shops and former sovkhoz enterprises. Much can be done in this field, just as a serious and disciplined effort to improve the quality, and re-establish the respect around fish from Aral is absolutely obligatory.

è    Items for investment: training on senior and junior management level, establishing procedures for continuous updating of knowledge in bookkeeping, credit schemes, etc; strengthening the actual marketing of the Aral fish in propaganda, sales tours, and promotion of the products.


As it has been described, the NGO component of the NAS fishery is currently the very heart of the development. The single most important factor in the remarkable results achieved during the past seven years (counted from the 1996 trial fishery), has been the volunteer and professional work by NGOs in the frame of Aral Tenizi. This work must be continued to ensure a sustainable further development. Especially, Aral Tenizi represents the only real and trustworthy access to the individual fishermen. Contacts and agreements are kept with more than 600 fishermen, and information flows both ways to the common best. The involvement and decentralization recommended in this report can best (and most likely only) be achieved through the expertise and network of the NGO. For this purpose, the society must be strengthened in a couple of fields.

è    Items for investment: Development of a more effective credit scheme is needed, inside or outside the frames of Aral Tenizi (with the possibility to charge interest rates); training on all levels – from capacity building in the village volunteer centres, to democratic guidelines in the board, via a strengthening of the office and staff with management courses, NGO courses, and improvement of technical skills (especially computer and internet). A number of minor projects within the Aral Tenizi can support the general development on many levels, e.g. seminars on resource management and nature protection, training of workers in the fish processing industry, marketing projects, biological projects. A Fishery Centre in Aralsk as suggested above would mean a manifestation and more solid foundation of Aral Tenizi, and an even deeper feeling of responsibility and common interest in the fishermen for maintaining and strengthening the democratical structures.

The advantages of the current situation in the NAS fishery should hopefully be clear: With a stabilized available resource of very high quality, a broad net of enterprises, companies, co-operatives, and organizations, in the making, and a market, which can be developed significantly on many levels, there exists a real and very valuable possibility of re-establishing the single most important trade in the region, which has for many years been the poorest part of Kazakhstan. In fact, the trade has already been re-established; what remains is to sustain it, to ensure that the profit from it will be to the benefit of as many of the inhabitants of the region as possible, and to develop it to a level, where a future significant improvement of the ecological situation in the Syr Darya and Northern Aral Sea system can be managed rationally and profitably for many generations. It is time to display optimism.

[1][1] The river flow of the two Central Asian rivers has varied significantly, and the data on even the same years tend to vary, depending on the source. We choose to use the data from the State Oceanographic Institute in Moscow, according to V.N. Bortnik (in: Glantz, p. 51).

[2][2] Quoted from (Glantz, p. 157-8)

[3][3] But there seems to be a growing awareness that not only from a ”limited” view of the situation, restricted to the Aral Sea and the obvious environmental consequences, but also from a view of all (the aspects of) the Aral Sea basin, the economic and social net results of the too intense irrigation projects, have been or will soon be proved to be negative. See especially the World Development Report 2003 from the World Bank, chapter 2: “Managing a Broader Portfolio of Assets.”

[4][4] A similar development took place in and around Muynak, Karakalpakistan, where fishery was equally important as in the NAS-area. (Indeed, the effects on environment and health seem to have been even more dramatic in the Uzbek coastal communities.) Since however, the scope of this report is extended only to the NAS-fishery, we will not go into further detail on the consequences to Karakalpakistan.

[5][5] The juridical aftermath of the hectic period as a private company is still (2002) being negotiated. One of the issues has been the salary of the employees, which for a number of years have been paid only partially, in products such as flour or margarine, or not at all. Many quite unorthodox ways of resolving these debts have emerged during the past 2-3 years, one employee e.g. being offered a small camel instead of the outstanding wages, another a wall (sic.!) of one of the remaining buildings.

[6][6] KazNIIRX is the abbreviation of Kazakhskij Nauchno-Issledovatel’skij Institut Rybnogo Khozyajstva: The Kazakh Scientific Research Institute of Fish Management. Its Aralsk branch was one of the main centres of the institution until the decline in fishery set in. The institute is now run on a tight budget, with a part time employed staff of 11, depending increasingly on international scientific projects, of which there has been a few in the past years (significantly within the frame of the fishery project “From Kattegat to Aral Sea” – in the years 1996, 1998, and 2001 –, and currently in an INTAS project, counting scientists from Kazakhstan, Russia, France, and Ireland.).

[7][7] In the likely case of a dam construction across the Berg Strait between the NAS and the SAS as described above in chapter 1, the fate of the flounder in the NAS is insecure, because of the resulting decline of salinity. This situation would from an economical point of view however most probably be preferable, since the NAS would in that case be affluent with a number of fresh and brackish water species.