II The flounder and the Danes: Rebuilding a fishery on the North Aral Sea

This is part two of William Wheeler’s Aral Sea blog, linked to his forthcoming paper in Global Environment. The first part appeared last week. Here William describes a Danish-led project to regenerate Aral Sea fisheries in the post-Soviet period, against the prevailing narrative of a ‘dead’ Sea.

In the previous part of this blog, I talked about constructions of the Aral Sea disaster within post-Cold War hierarchies, which shaped some of the development interventions that took place – including the successful construction of the Kökaral Dam/Dyke in 2005 by the World Bank/Kazakhstan government, which has restored part of the northern Aral. I here discuss a very different sort of project, whereby a group of Danish activists sought to establish a flounder fishery on the salinised waters of the northern Aral in the 1990s.

While the Aral Sea disaster is generally understood in terms of the sea drying up, of more immediate concern to the fish populations was the rising salinity. As a brackish lake, the sea had supported freshwater species such as zander, asp, bream, roach. But as freshwater inflow from the sea’s feeder rivers fell as a result of irrigation across Central Asia, the sea became saltier; the native species, unable to cope with the rising salinity, gradually died out. As I discuss in my forthcoming article in Global Environment on life in the Aral region in the late Soviet period, the Soviet authorities’ response focused on sending Aral fishermen to fish on other lakes in Kazakhstan, as well as improving remaining delta lakes at the mouth of the Syr Darya. But a further measure, whose effect would only be felt after the USSR’s demise, was, ‘in the interests of making fuller use of the biological resources of the Aral Sea’,[1] to acclimatise a fish that could cope with the high salinity levels: flounder.

Over the course of the twentieth century, various species had been introduced to the Aral both by accident and by design – most notably, the stellate sturgeon, which, having been introduced from the Caspian to enrich the Aral fishery, brought with it a parasite that had a disastrous impact on the local ship sturgeon. One accidental introduction was the Amur snakehead – raised for commercial purposes in ponds, before escaping into watercourses connected to the Aral’s feeder rivers, and ultimately spreading throughout the Aral basin as an invasive species – but, as a fatty fish, its meat is popular locally. The snakehead has a remarkable ability to survive out of water: my host in Aral’sk, Sasha, described how he had once caught half a sack of snakehead, and left it on the shore while he went off to shoot ducks – on his return, the fish had gone, having escaped from the sack and wriggled back into the water. I love this story – it seems perfectly to encapsulate the messy contingencies of human/environment relations – the accidental introduction that gets out of control, though it just happens to be rather tasty, if you can pin it down before it wriggles out of control again…

So, in 1978, flounder was introduced, brought from the Sea of Azov. Finding a sea that was largely empty of competitors, the flounder thrived. Crucially, throughout the 1980s, Aral fishermen were working on lakes elsewhere in Kazakhstan, so the flounder was left to grow in the absence of its main predator. As a flatfish, flounder are quite unlike any of the species native to the Aral – and, being of somewhat monstrous appearance, were at first met with surprise. As Qydyrbai, a fisherman with a booming voice, explained to me:

Elubai was a fisherman, this was the first fisherman to catch a flounder. Then he came and showed it to my father: ‘Uncle, what is this fish? It looks like a tortoise’. Then my father said: ‘This fish was released by KazNIIRKh [the fisheries research institute]’.

Image 8
Qydyrbai (centre) regales his cousin Samalbek (left) and the author (right) with stories on the dried-up seabed near Tastübek. Photograph: Author.

After explaining (mistakenly) that the flounder had been released into the Aral from the Pacific Ocean, Qydyrbai went on:

So, he brought in one flounder. The next day my brother laid a net and seven fish were caught. Then my brother – the whole family was scared – my brother said, ‘If I die, I die…’ and fried it and ate it. Tasty. So.

The first official catch of flounder was organised in February 1991, and, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Aral fishermen were again, in addition to their other operations elsewhere, fishing on the sea – for flounder. But in the years to come, logistical problems abounded – both the distance of the sea from the fishing villages, and the lack of equipment amidst the general economic crisis that accompanied the USSR’s demise. As I describe in my article, the Aral fishery kept going to a remarkable degree in the late Soviet period, even in the absence of the sea, sustained by the infrastructure of provisioning and state subsidies that allowed Aral fishermen to fish elsewhere in Kazakhstan. As this infrastructure collapsed in the 1990s, the fishery collapsed too. But at this point, the flounder rallied some unexpected actors: the Danes. As Qydyrbai explained, still in his booming voice:

In ’96 the Danes came. Autumn ’96, at the end of September they came. So. Kurt, Knud, Henrik, Ruud. Four of them came. Then they began. They gave the people nets, Danish nets. They brought a refrigeration unit. Clothes. They brought everything except for boats. Clothing, life-rings, anchors, life-jackets, rubber boats, nets, needle and thread, crates, basins, seins, they brought all the equipment to give us. Only boats they didn’t bring, they brought everything else.

* * *

In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed the way the Aral Sea disaster became discursively tangled up with Cold War categories which saw the USSR as a uniquely environmentally destructive entity, and with new notions of development in the restructured east/west hierarchy. But this is not the full story.

Kurt Christensen, a former fisherman and ecological activist from Denmark, first visited the Aral Sea on the eve of the USSR’s collapse. His ecological activism derived from his experiences as a small-scale fisherman in the waters of Kattegat – where fish stocks suffered from agricultural run-off and overfishing by big trawlers. The resonances with the Aral are evident. He was also following the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement – a US/Kazakhstani grassroots antinuclear movement established in 1989. While undoubtedly drawn to the Aral Sea because of the famous story of the disaster, Kurt also saw that the disaster narrative, and the overwhelming sense that the sea was dead, was overstated. From discussions with Kazakh fishermen, he could see that there were fish in the sea – and of course, as a Danish fisherman, he knew flounder well – but that the problems were primarily logistical, especially in the chaos following the Soviet collapse. Together with other Danish activists, and working with various local activists in the Aral region, Kurt set up a project, ‘From Kattegat to the Aral Sea’.

The project that ensued saw, as Qydyrbai explained, major logistical assistance to establish a sustainable small-scale flounder fishery on the remains of the sea. Tests revealed – to everyone’s astonishment – that the flounder were exceptionally clean, far less marked by pollutants than European flounder. Fishermen would generally travel to the sea by camel, and camp on the shore. It was a thoroughly transformed environment – fishermen in Aqespe, far from the freshening effects of the Syr Darya mouth, describe water being so salty that their clothes became completely encrusted with salt. But there were flounder in abundance – I was told of flounder so big they could fill an entire doorway.

Another element of the project involved acclimatising the local population to this monstrous fish – according to a local joke, people would go to the market and ask for 1 kg of black flounder and 1 kg of white flounder. So the Danes also organised competitions for cafes to cook the tastiest flounder – which would be cooked in Danish style, battered and served with beer. Over the late 1990s and early 2000s, a viable flounder fishery began to develop – and it was this fishery, as much as anything, that persuaded the World Bank planners that there was merit in building a dam to preserve and expand the northern Aral.

No aid project is purely logistical: there is always some element of social engineering. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Danes also sought to change local society – to instil a sense of personal responsibility into fishermen, and to ensure that they would take care of their equipment, rather than, as in Soviet times, relying on everything being provided for them. Where previously, fishermen had fished for the state, being instructed where and when and how much to fish by fisheries managers, themselves taking orders from the ministry, the Danes envisaged a fishery made up of small-scale operators who would take care of their environment. So should we conclude, then, as many critiques of development would assume, that the Danes were part of the postsocialist ‘hegemonic reconstruction’ I mentioned in Part I? That the well-known disaster was a hook on which to hang new hegemonic notions of sustainability and local agency?

I would argue against this interpretation. Certainly, the Danes’ notions resonated with neoliberal notions of personal responsibility and with the sustainability discourse that was coming to dominate the development sector in the 1990s; and certainly, the power relations cannot be ignored. But recall Kurt’s own trajectory: from marginalised fisherman in a peripheral area of Denmark, bearing the brunt of EU agricultural and fisheries policies, to ecological activist, inspired by the Nevada/Semipalatinsk movement, a rare moment of Cold War activist cooperation that linked east and west. To see the rugged Nordic individualism of the Danish activists as just part of the new neoliberal ideology being rolled out across the region is to miss the specificity of this history – including the highly contingent role of the flounder in rallying the Danish activists and proving the basis of a fishery.

In any case, the Danish goals were overtaken by events – the construction of the Kökaral Dam saw the partial restoration and freshening of the sea, and the rapid return of freshwater fisheries. At the time of my fieldwork, fish – especially zander, which is popular in Germany and has a high market value – were being caught in abundance. But the ideal of small-scale cooperatives has been displaced by a system that favours large-scale operators. And, in a hierarchical management system where quotas are set by state inspectors on the basis of scientific recommendations, there is little sense that the role of the individual fisherman is anything other than to fish – it is not their role to ensure the sustainability of the fishery. Indeed, my research found that, especially in the more successful fisheries, many fishermen embraced the lack of responsibilities: as fish translate into money, the ritual economy is sustained and expanded, with weddings becoming ever more lavish and many families building new, ‘European-style’ houses. (In a context of highly arbitrary enforcement, quotas are not respected, and at the time of my fieldwork, it was unclear how far current levels of fishing could be sustained – but that is another story.)[2] In this context, as Qydyrbai’s narrative above suggests, the Danes are remembered today mostly for their logistical and practical support – but they are remembered with affection, as I found when I was taught to say Skål! over a measure of vodka.

Image 9
Warming up for a day’s fishing, January 2013. Photograph: Author.

Meanwhile, the flounder are undergoing their own sad coda. After playing a critical role in demonstrating to World Bank planners that there would be a fishery if the dam were built, the flounder are now themselves dying out as the water has freshened following the dam’s construction.


[1] Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan, fond 1137, opis’ 1pr, delo 5145, list 119.

[2] I discuss the contemporary fishery at greater length in William Wheeler, ‘Fish as Property on the Small Aral Sea, Kazakhstan’, in Tom Lambert, Georgy Kantor and Hannah Skoda (eds), Legalism: Property and Ownership (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 203-33.

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