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Uzbekistan: How They Restore Fishing Industry in Aral Region

The authorities of Uzbekistan try to restore fishing industry in South Aral Sea region by tax exemptions and millions worth financial investments, yet have failed to solve the problem of water scarcity.

На русском Ўзбекча

The Aral Sea has once been one of the world’s largest enclosed bodies of water, but in recent 30 years it has been on the verge of disappearing. The area of its dried bottom is nearly 4 million hectares. Over 1.3 million of it is located in the territory of Uzbekistan, this region is called South Aral Sea region or the Republic of Karakalpakstan. The ecological disaster has become a irreparable damage to the people living there, to the ecosystem and biodiversity.

Anvarbek Matmuratov. Photo: CABAR.asia
Anvarbek Matmuratov has been engaged in fishing for five years already. This year it was the second time that he has taken part in the gastronomic festival “99 kinds of dishes made from the fish in the Aral Sea” held in Porlytau village of Muinak district. He has come to the event from neighbouring Beruni district, where he has his own small fish farm – an artificial pond with one-hectare area, where he raises 10 species of fish. According to him, his income per year is 50, or sometimes even 60 million sums (6-7 thousand dollars), depending on the species.

“Currently, the state pays much attention to the fishing industry. Therefore, the number of fish breeders is growing in Beruni district. And they supply more fish to local markets,” said Matmuratov.

International ecofestival dedicated to the “Restoration of the Aral Sea and Muinak” has been held concurrently with the gastronomic event. Both of them have been held for economic development of the region and attraction of tourists.

Muinak district, with over 30 thousand residents, has suffered the most from the Aral disaster. Some time ago local residents used to fish for a living, but now the majority of the region are plains, deserts, salt marshes and the dried-up sea. Everyone tries to restore fishing here, and all lakes, including artificial ponds, have been transferred to fish farms. According to local resident Genzhabai Uteniyazov, local residents are allowed to fish from time to time, but the weight of catch must not exceed four kilogrammes. Also, fishing during spawning season is prohibited.

Ecological innovations area

Previously, Aral has been one of the richest fishing areas in the world – the annual volume of catch in water bodies of the Aral Sea region until 1991 was 20-25 thousand tonnes. Over 80 per cent of locals had been involved in fishing, fish processing and transportation of fish and fish products.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the volume of production in the aquaculture sector declined several times – to 4.2 thousand tonnes in 1995-2006.

As of October 1 this year, the catch in the Aral region was slightly over 6 thousand tonnes. All products are supplied to the domestic market of the region and Uzbekistan.

The authorities of the country have paid much attention to the development of fishing industry in recent years. If Uzbekistan had no focused policy and strategy of fishing industry development before, now it develops a programme for integrated development of fishing industry until 2021.

Since recently, there is the fund for fishing development in Karakalpakstan, which finances research and selective and breeding works, develops modern feed formulas, introduces modern technologies into fishing industry, prevents and treats fish diseases, prepares investment projects to develop the industry. Also, there is the newly created Uzbekbaliksanoat Association, which contains 13 local subdivisions that ensure coordination of works in the fishing industry at the local level.

Until January 1, 2023, the Association and its members have been exempted from unified tax payment, and the released money is used primarily to support fish farms, strengthen physical infrastructure and to pay material incentives to workers.

Membership in Uzbekbaliksanoat is a mandatory provision for renting natural ponds, and is optional for entrepreneurs renting artificial ponds. Fish farms pay rent depending on the area in hectares and the catch.

According to Amantai Bekturganov, chief inspector of the state tax office of Karakalpakstan, now the republic has 1,490 fish farms. They possess 85.4 thousand hectares of land, including 2 per cent of artificial ponds.

On August 24, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev suggested to declare the Aral Sea region as the area of environmental innovations and technologies. And on November 7, he signed the order for further development of fishing industry. The document specifies a stage-by-stage transition to intensive fish farming. The state will allocate 50 million dollars to finance the projects.

Moreover, since January 1, 2019 all fish farm clusters producing at least 50 tonnes of fish per year shall be exempted from all kinds of taxes and mandatory deductions to state specialised funds.

And before November 1, 2021, the farms will be exempted from customs duties (except for customs clearance fees) on equipment, tools, mechanisms and their spare parts, required for fish production, as well as mixed feed and mineral fertilisers.

More water needed

Once famous for its fish, South Aral Sea region tries to adapt to the new conditions. The economy in the region is today mainly supported by cotton production, cattle breeding and growing melons and gourds. The people are mainly engaged in trade, agriculture and provision of services.

According to the Karakalpakstan department of the tourism development committee of Uzbekistan, the number of tourists visiting the Aral region increases every year. In the last nine months, local hotels have accommodated 11,433 tourists. This is 80 per cent more compared to last year.

In mid-November, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Muinak district. He has noted that the district is rich in phragmites and ordered to organise companies to process it and produce construction materials from it in order to provide jobs to young people. And also he has advised to grow goats that adapt easily to the ambient environment and eat almost everything. However, the head of the state has again ordered to develop fishing industry here.

But despite the development programmes, tax exemptions and millions of dollars, there are factors that hinder the development of the industry. One of them is the irregular water inflow to the ponds in the lower reaches of Amudarya during the spawning season. The majority of water remains in cotton and grain fields.

Salamat Azhibaev has been engaged in fish farming for 15 years. He rents natural ponds in Takhtakupir, Muinak and Kungrad districts of the South Aral Sea region, but development rate of his business remains low due to the water scarcity.

“This year we have had little water, therefore, fish grows slowly. In addition to the rent of ponds, we also sell fish wholesale. We buy fish from other fish farms and then supply it to consumers, but the lack of water has caused a drop in fish yield of other fishers,” Azhibaev said.

In early November this year, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has ordered the ministry of water resources to enter into water use contracts with fish farms until April 1, 2019, and to provide them with water in required amounts.

Currently, agriculture in the South Aral Sea region uses 97.1 per cent of water. For comparison: 1.2 per cent of water is used by community facilities, 0.3 per cent by energy industry, 0.1 per cent by industrial sphere, and 1.2 per cent by fish industry.

Due to the water shortage in the Aral region, 21 water ponds have dried up. Therefore, acts of inability of fish farming have been signed by their tenants. And the existing ponds are too small compared to the former area of Aral, 90 per cent of the sea has become shallow.

But, despite water problems, Salamat keeps his hopes up.

“The fishing industry is promising for the South Aral Sea region if we develop natural ponds, where fish grows in natural environment. However, despite all the efforts made, development of fishing industry like in other regions of Uzbekistan does not have effect,” fish-farmer said.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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