- perspectives for the future flounder fishery 

May 2000 – The international fishery project ”From Kattegat to Aral Sea”





This report has been written on the request of the mayor Aitpai Kusherbai of Aral Region. In a meeting on the 25th of February 2000, the mayor requested us (the fishery project) to prepare a report on the fishery of flounder in the Aral Sea. The mayor expects the project to account for the potentials in a fully developed flounder fishery. Further, we were instructed to present the matter as openly as possible. By this we also understand that we should include possible critiques of the private- and public administration in the region. This openness is hereby attempted.

The report is produced by the Danish co-ordinator of the project, Kurt Bertelsen Christensen. It is written in Danish, and translated into English by Henrik Jøker Bjerre (the English version is hereafter considered the original document), and into Russian by Zhanna Makhambetovna Tairova.

Historical summary – 1995 – 1999

 In 1995, a Kazak delegation from the Aral region visited Denmark, and during this visit a protocol and an agreement of co-operation were signed, which together formed the basis of the fishery project ”From Kattegat to Aral Sea”. The aim of this Danish/Kazak fishery project it became to develop a sustainable fishery for flounder in the Aral Sea to the benefit of the fishermen and the fishery communities around the Small Aral. This aim was to be reached mainly through a massive Danish economical and fishery professional support to the Kazak fishermen living in the Aral region.

Since 1996, the project has been active in the region, and the fishery has become active in the Aral Sea – especially many places in the Small Aral have become fishing places. The following headlines describe the activities since 1996: 

-         In 1996, a cargo with fishery equipment, among other things 1000 new nets, was transported from Denmark to the Aral region, and a trial fishery was conducted with good results.

-         In 1997, 22 smaller and independent fishery co-operatives were established.

-         In 1998, trial fisheries were again conducted, and experiments of sales of quality flounder in Almaty were carried out.

-         In 1998, a major biological program was carried out in the Small and the Big Aral.

-         Towards the end of 1998, a society named ”Aral Tenizi” was founded, and was formally established in a general assembly in 1999. Today, the society counts ca. 650 paying members.

-         In 1999, another transport with equipment was sent out, counting around 800 nets and materials for another 1000, together with various other kinds of equipment, including 50 computers, in a cargo of ca. 19 ton from Denmark to Aralsk.

The stock of flounder in Aral


It should be made clear from the beginning that the stock of flounder in Aral is very much depending on external influences, since we are dealing with a new species of fish in a quite limited area. The flounder was introduced in the late 1970´s, i.e. approximately 25 years ago. This fact means that it can be difficult to predict anything about the stock, it being so rapidly build up. Therefore this report should be taken with some reservation, and all conclusions are understood to tacitly begin ”It seems that…”. 

The uncertainty should be considered in the context of the constant influences, which the stock meets. In this connection it is interesting that the influences from human beings, first of all through the fishery, counts as a modest factor. It is very unusual that the fishery is not first in line, when these questions are to be answered. The usual situation, for instance in Danish waters, is that the influence from the fishery amounts to more than 50 % of the overall influence.

In Danish waters, the pollution is also a significant factor, and effects to a greater or lesser extent the individual stocks. In the Aral Sea it is not the fishery and the pollution, but the natural influences that play the most important role – that is, if you leave out of account the dam between the Small and the Big Aral. 

The dam however does play a significant role, maybe not for the size of the flounder stock, but for the placement of the flounder in the Small and Big Aral, respectively. The dam, and latest it's collapse in 1999, does mean a lot. It is not possible to state it percentage, but the dam means a significant difference, if not even everything, for the situation of the flounder during the year. The salinity is immensely important to the success of the flounder to spawn.

Hence, the dam and the relatively modest fishery embody the human factor, since we evaluate the influence of pollution to be of minimal importance.

From the natural influences, the amount of water that flows into Aral from the Syr Darya river is important, as well as the time and strength of the winter frost – these are the natural influences that effect the evaluation of stock.

Amounts and potential of catches

The biological/etiological investigations of the flounder stock in Aral are few and limited in range. But nevertheless we may conclude that the stock of flounder in Aral is significant, and that it is in position of good living conditions. This conclusion is drawn from the catches themselves, and on the average of number of pieces of flounder caught per net since 1996. A biological investigation in the Small, as well as the Big, Aral in the autumn of 1998 confirms this conclusion. This investigation also shows that the flounder is really leading a ”spoiled” life, since the fishery is quite modest, and the natural enemies are very few. 

Since 1996, a relatively large amount of knowledge has been build up about the many places in Small Aral, where nets have been pulled, and where it has appeared to be the case that the amount of flounder per net is significant. From this accumulated knowledge we estimate that it will be possible to catch in-between 1500-3000 ton of flounder per year. If the total catches reach 1500 ton, there should be kept an attentive eye to the development in the catches towards the 3000 ton. An attentive eye here means: Weekly estimations that can have the fishery stopped, if it seems to be threatening the sustainability.

The stock  

The amount of flounder in the Small Aral is varied around the coasts of Aralsk, and to the west at Tastubek, Akesbe, Akbasty, the north west of Kokaral, and from the delta along the east coast to Aralsk. The biggest amounts, around 75 % of the total, are found the west part of the Small Aral, from Tastubek/Akesbe in the east, and along the coastlines to Akbasty and the north coast of Kokaral. The remaining parts are spread along the coastline between the delta and westwards to Tastubek. The difference between west and east, we explain in the fact that the western part apparently has the right concentration of salt, the right depths, and not the least probably the right temperatures in the season of spawning.

Some biology

The life cycle of the flounder: In the period april-august, the flounder is living in the sea on the deepest water. It leaves shore in the beginning of March, depending on the temperature of the water, which also determines, when the flounder is spawning. Some time April, it should usually have finished spawning.  

Concerning the spawning season there are also variations depending on the flounder living in the western or the eastern part of the Small Aral. The flounder in the eastern part is spawning 1-2 months before the one in the western part. This must be related to the salinity and the higher temperature in the shallow waters of the eastern part. In a period of 5 months, form March to September, the flounder is of no value. It moves to the deep waters after spawning, and is then very lean, with a meat percentage of 30-35 %. The percentage is this low because the meat contains much water, and it is therefore not very tasty, and even difficult to prepare, since it is easier to prepare fish with more dry matter.

During the summer period it regains its strength and builds up the depots for the coming spawn season, starting in October. 

The seasons

It is hence possible to start the fishery in early September in the slightly deeper waters, and then follow the flounder on it’s way towards the coast. The autumn fishery from September till the ice covers the sea in December, is the best season for fishing flounder. The fish is very fat, the eggs are firm and tasty, and a cautious estimation of the meat percentage would be ca. 45-48%.

·        September, October, November are the 3 best months for flounder fishery, but it is also the season where treatment and keeping demand the most from fishermen and industry.

·        When the ice is safe, the winter season starts – running from some in December through the end of March. In these 3 months, the quality of the flounder is reasonable, without being superb, and the meat percentage is estimated to range from 40-45%, depending on whether the fish has spawned. In favour of the fishery in this period speaks the fact that treatment and keeping are significantly improved compared to the autumn, because the weather is cold and the fish hence naturally frozen during the catching- and transportation processes.

We may conclude that the flounder season covers 6 months. December is a transitional month, where the ice is appearing and for a time making fishery impossible – vessels being obstructed by ice, and walking/driving the ice being still no option.

What conditions must be met to obtain an optimal fishery for flounder?


At first it should be emphasised that Kazak fishermen have no tradition in catching flat fish, since the Kazak environment does not naturally contain species such as flounder. This means that fishermen must obtain new skills in:

1.      Hunting flounder

2.      Using the equipment suitable for catching flounder

3.      Treating and keeping flounder

Hunting flounder

Concerning the hunt for flounder, the latter – like other species – some times shows unpredictable behaviour. Therefore a fishery for flounder – like for other species – must be build on the experience of the fishermen. They must build up knowledge of when to start; where the fish is situated – and not the least why - ; and they should preferably know this about all the periods in the year. They must build up the experience that enables them to ”read” the necessary signs from the trial fisheries that are launched in August/September, when the season starts. The trial fisheries and the following practical fishery will relatively quickly, in 5-10 years, build up the experience necessary for an optimal flounder fishery.

·        The unpredictable behaviour of the flounder can be illustrated in the following way: In 1996, we were able to catch big amounts of flounder near Tastubek and all the way to the Akesbe Bay. In this area there were a lot of fish that autumn, and in the winter the fishery was very good also. When in 1998 we launched the two major trial fisheries in Tastubek and Ysh-Schocke, we were somewhat surprised that there appeared to be quite few fish near Tastubek, but vast amounts in the western part of Small Aral. (And because of fragile fishing vessels, we couldn’t move westwards as fast as it is needed for the fishery be optimal.) In this report, it is not possible to move into greater details on the hydrological- and biological causes and explanations of these differences, but it should be noted that temperatures and salinity’s decide, where it is possible to catch the flounder before, during and after the spawning season.

Using the equipment suitable for catching flounder

Concerning equipment and the experience of the fishermen in using nets for catching of flounder, the fishermen need to build up knowledge and experience  with the nets that arrive from Denmark. The ready made nets are sewn for Danish conditions in catching flounder in the Danish waters. Men these waters are open, with significant currents, and at times big amounts of vegetation. These conditions are not so important in the Aral Sea, and therefore the Danish nets are not perfect fits. However, the nets that are sewn in the Aral Region, and made from Danish materials, should be more or less optimal. The effectiveness of the equipment is also influenced by the fact that the fishermen only recently started catching the flounder in the Aral Sea, and they are therefore only beginning to build the necessary knowledge and experience. This concerns the treatment of the nets, and the ways of taking out the flounder from the Danish nets. It will take some seasons to build up the abilities to secure the optimal treatment of nets after their being pulled on board.

Treating and keeping flounder

The treatment and keeping of flounder differ importantly from the treatment and keeping of fresh water fish like catfish, and carp. These fish have relatively strong skin with strong scale. This ”packing” protects the fish meat, after the fish has been brought to land. With regards to carps, there is also one decisive difference in the fact that the carp is not a predator, and hence does not carry animal nutrition in the stomach. Predators, i.e. fish with animal nutrition in the stomach, more quickly become problematic with regards to quality, than the fish that nourishes from vegetable nutrition.

The central point in the treatment of flounder is connected to the fact that the skin of the flounder is more thin and without scale. In combination with the animal contents of the stomach, this means a rapid loss of quality. The flounder must simply be treated and kept more carefully than the fish, the Kazak fishermen traditionally catch. Knowledge and experience in this field must be build, new systems must be introduced, and investments must be made in fishery treatment- and storage equipment. This is necessary, if one wishes to achieve the optimal economical profit from the flounder catches.

Barriers and difficulties limiting the flounder fishery


It has already been mentioned, but should again be stressed – the flounder does not belong naturally in the Kazak environment, and as such it must be considered as unknown to the fishermen. This can be said to be the most important present obstruction to an optimal flounder fishery. The following paragraph will concern the barriers and difficulties that the fishery must meet in this year, 2000.

The ”natural”

To the natural belong those difficulties that have not yet been solved. The lacking knowledge of the flounder on part of the fishermen, and the resulting lack of motivation in starting the flounder fishery. The lacking technical and biological knowledge of the life and behaviour of the flounder are also important in this respect. Add to this that the flounder is gastronomically unknown, compared with e.g. carp. These factors all subtract from the motivation of the fishermen to start the flounder fishery. Mud at the sea shore is to some degree disturbing the fishery. And the relatively long distances and bad roads from the fishing grounds in the west to Aralsk, are further impediments. Also, the dam and the insecurity concerning it’s future, play an important role.

The professional 

By professional difficulties is understood the lack of effective tools for the catching of flounder, badly maintained fishing vessels, and other necessary means of transportation, such as boat motors, which aren’t working, and vehicles in very bad condition. Since the flounder is very vulnerable after catching, the fishery needs cooling-/freezing vehicles, which are not at present time available in the region.

The organisational

There is a significant and noticeable lack of organised fishery. We have seen and heard how the fishery was organised 20-30 years ago. At that time management was maintained in areas, where it was necessary – today there is no management. The most brigades and co-operatives have a management – a direction, but the overall management, which makes sure that everything is ready when the season starts, is no longer existing. A few former leaders are unsuccessfully trying to take steering, but they are out of touch with reality, or they do not enjoy the respect among the fishermen and others. The plan management has broken down, and no durable replacement has yet emerged. The fishermen have obviously lost the respect of the leaders, who are trying to gain control of the fishery in the Aral Region.

Problems and difficulties in the project since it started in 1996


It is rather well known that the project has had problems with co-operation, especially in the initial phase. This should be seen in terms of the habitual misunderstanding that occur, when two very different cultures are engaging in the construction of a co-operation people to people.

The kindness and hospitality are the driving forces in such a process. But these factors, important as they may be for the co-operation between people, have a tendency at concealing the factual problems. It has been characteristic for the initial phase of the project that both parties have been reluctant to put forward the critique that necessarily must appear in such a phase.

And in this respect, the Danish/Kazak project has met greater difficulties than many similar projects. From the Danish side, no one had worked with an NGO-project in Kazakstan before, nor in Central Asia at all. From the Kazak side, no one had worked with Danish NGO´s before, nor with western NGO´s at all. Besides this, the problems have been of more concrete character: no communication in-between the visits, since the telephone connections were very bad in the first years; lacking support from the most important partner in the Aralrybprom; lacking support from specialists and administration in Aralsk.

General problems and difficulties in Kazakstan

The fishery in Kazakstan, and therefore also in the Aral Region, has been directed from the top until the independence in 1991. From Danish side we were of course aware of this reality, but the Danish partner nonetheless had severe problems in accepting the fact that such a style of management is not simply changed, because someone thinks that it would be for the better. We must assume that this general problem in the co-operation project has been strongly increased by the problems in the Aral Region in going from a well functioning fishery to a total collapse in the mid 1970s. 

The fishery and the fishermen in the region are determined by the fate of Aral. Even though fishery was conducted in other places since the 70s, the fishermen – and indeed everyone living in the region – couldn’t put the Aral Sea behind them. The catastrophe infiltrated everything, it governed every day life in the region, which it to some extent still does, though less so now than before.

General problems and difficulties in Denmark

It should be noted that the Danish partner differs from most other organisations operating in the Aral Region, not only in the lack of previous and present experiences elsewhere in Central Asia, but also – and significantly – in being non-professional. As an NGO-organisation based mainly on volunteer work force, the society Levende Hav, which is responsible for the fishery project, is depending on the possibilities – and simply the spare time – of a very limited number of people. The fact that this group is trained mostly in other fields than development work is considered in the project to be a major advantage (broadly speaking, professional fishermen are working together with professional fishermen), but it does undoubtedly also represent some limitation to the scope and effectiveness of the project. This was especially true of the early stages of the project, where communication between Aralsk and Denmark was next to non-existing, and has generally meant that the Danish representation in the region has been of short periods and with people, who were performing concrete tasks within e.g. one month, but didn’t have the background and time to fully comprehend the history and background of the fishery in Aral, and in Central Asia in general.

It is difficult to fully assess the net importance of these factors, but it can simply be stated that they represent as well advantages as limitations to the possibilities of the project.

An account of the concrete Danish efforts in the coming 5 years

The period 1994 - 1999

The Danish efforts have now been carried on in ca. 5 years. They have included the following works, from the preliminary investigation in 1994, to phase 1 in 1996-1998, and phase 2, 1998-1999.





A Danish delegation of three visits Aralsk for one month to carry out preliminary investigations. A Terms of reference is signed with relevant Kazak partners.

Financed by: a private fond.





     10,000 US$


A Kazak delegation of 6 persons visits Denmark for one month. Here, a  Protocol of our Common Aims is signed.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs



   20,000 US$



1996: A Kazak delegation of 19 persons visits Denmark for one month.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.



   40,000 US$


A transport with fishery equipment is sent from Denmark to Aralsk.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Danish private funds, and companies.



  100,000 US$


A pilot trial fishery under Danish supervision is conducted on the Small Aral.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


    40,000 US$


Works in the Aral Region: founding of co-operatives, employment of local staff, and visits from Denmark.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.



10,000 US$



Visits from two Kazak delegations, in all 12 persons in 5 weeks.

Financed by: The Danish Foreign Ministry and private funds.


  30,000 US$


Trial fisheries on the Aral Sea; a biological investigation of Aral; experiment of selling fish in Almaty; 9 Danish experts staying in the Aral Region; salary for staff in the region, administration and purchases.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.




 100,000 US$


Support to the foundation of ”Aral Tenizi”: salary for staff, administration, and purchases; credits; support for general assembly; 2 Danish staying in the region in two periods.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and private funds.




   30,000 US$


A transport with fishery- and other equipment is sent from Denmark to Aralsk.

Financed by: The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, private funds, companies, and private persons.



   60,000 US$


¨      Note that: The activities supported by Danish funds since 1994 - 1999 amount to a total of $ 440,000. (This figure is approximate, since the course of one dollar has changed during the six years, between 6.3 and 7.2 dollar per Danish crone. In Danish kroner, the activities have been financed by ca. 3 million DKK.)

 ¨      For the work in the coming 5 years, the project has so far obtained grants at ca. US$ 400,000.        It could realistically be expected that the project in the years to come, will be able to obtain        further grants of ca. $ 200,000, and compared with the works that are to be initiated, this        support will be needed.

 ¨      In all, this means that the Danish support in a period of 10 years, from 1994-2004, will probably amount to $ 850,000, and when supplemented by the expected extra grants of $ 200,000, the total Danish economical commitment will be in more than $ 1 million.

The period 2000-2004

In the year 2000, the 3rd phase is initiated. This phase includes among other, the following elements:






Throughout the year: Ordinary project work in Denmark and Kazakstan, including development of Aral Tenizi, and the fishery co-operatives.

May: Transport of freezing container and fishery equipment from Denmark to Aralsk.

May/June: Mending of fishing vessels, construction of receiving stations for fish. Participation from Danish experts.

August-September: Visit from Danish delegation in Aralsk, in connection with the general assembly of Aral Tenizi, and the increased efforts in the flounder fishery.


30,000 US$

100,000 US$


40,000 US$

10,000 US$



Budget for solving of tasks in this year



Budget for solving of tasks in this year

50,000 US$


Budget for solving of tasks in this year

40,000 US$


Budget for solving of tasks in this year

50,000 US$

Perspectives for the coming 5 years.


From the side of the project, we will be active in the period to come. Above it has been stated, how much money has been granted for this work. We believe that it will be necessary to obtain another ca. $ 200,000, and as mentioned we believe that it should be possible to find this amount. With this input, we believe that the perspectives below should be within reach. Of course it is possible that events will occur that will change even significantly this prognosis, but it should be noted that such external influences might effect the project both negatively and positively.

How much can be caught?

Based on our experience since 1996, on the biological data of the KAZniirx institute in Aralsk, and on the major biological investigation carried out in 1998, we may predict that it should be possible to catch an estimated 1,500 tons of flounder per year without endangering the sustainability of the stock. At present time the total catches per year are estimated at around 400-500 tons, which indicates a significant range for intensification of the efforts. However, with increased efforts in flounder fishery (among other reasons because of the set backs in the fishery in the smaller fresh lakes in the region), it is of great importance that the biological monitoring of the sea is continued, and that precautions are taken, when the total amounts of the catches approach 1,000 tons per year, or when the flounder stock shows significant changes.

The estimated amount of 1,500 tons per year should be possible to reach with a few elementary improvements in the fishery, and with the intensification of the efforts due to the simple fact that more and more fishermen will concentrate on the flounder fishery.

How should it be treated?

Treatment of the fish is of utmost importance in this process. When correctly treated and kept, the fish can – especially in the autumn season – maintain a gastronomic quality fit for any market. As described above, however, when treated and kept unsatisfactorily the flounder tends to lose quality very rapidly. Therefore, it is imperative that all possible means be provided for the correct treatment and keeping of the flounder, from the immediate procedures after catching the fish, until it leaves Aralsk in closed refrigerator containers. The main links in this process are: The cleaning of the fish, the immediate cooling of it on location, and the transport from the fishing ground to Aralsk. The project will take steps to support the improvement of these procedures, during the fishery season from early September 2000.

To whom should it be sold?

The quality of the Aral Flounder is extraordinarily high. Were it caught and sold in the Danish market, it could provide the fisherman with a hypothetical income of, say $ 2 per kilogram…

Transportation however, limits the possibilities of actual export of flounder from Aral. With heightened standards in treatment and keeping of the fish, no doubt the flounder will attract buyers from outside the immediate neighbours of the Aral region.