How a dam in Volgograd has almost killed off the caviar fish

Volgograd. Image: Getty.

Yesterday, the floodlights were turned on at the newly built Volgograd Arena for the first World Cup match to be held there, between England and Tunisia.

But, as an expert in the illegal caviar trade, I know Volgograd because the energy powering those same floodlights will be generated by the nearby Volgograd HydroElectric Station. This is the largest hydro power plant in Europe, and a dam which has played a pivotal role in driving sturgeon – the source of the iconic Russian delicacy, black caviar – to the brink of extinction.

The 725m long and 44m high concrete giant sits about 20km outside the city centre and dissects Europe’s longest and most powerful river, the Volga. Construction began in the 1950s, as part of post-war industrialisation initiatives known as the “Great Construction Projects of Communism”. This in a city which during the World War II – when it was known as Stalingrad – was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in history. The dam was completed in 1961 and today produces around 12 billion KW-hours of energy a year.

The Volga flows 3,500km northwards from the Caspian Sea. One of its tributaries even reaches Moscow. Image: Kmusser/Wikimedia Commons.

The station was groundbreaking in both scale and energetic output. For a few years, it may have been the single largest power plant in the world. But despite the benefits to the climate of “clean” hydro-powered energy, the Volgograd station has been particularly damaging for the sturgeon species that attempt to migrate from the Caspian Sea to reproduce in the upper reaches of the Volga.

Russia’s pride

Sturgeon, affectionately referred to as “Tsar Fish” are perhaps more critically endangered than any other group of species on the planet. There are 27 species in all, of which four are found in the Volga: Russian sturgeon, sterlet, stellate, and the beluga which is famous for producing the world’s finest caviar.

These fish are often described as “living fossils”. They’ve been around since dinosaurs walked the earth 150m years ago, and individual fish can live for more than a century. Sturgeon have attained a cultural and historical significance in Russia and are a source of national pride.

But socioeconomic change in Russia has been disastrous for these fish. Their rivers have been polluted, fragmented and dammed and this – along with overfishing and poaching for caviar – has caused populations in the Volga to plummet by 90 per cent since 1970.

A slow reproductive cycle means numbers cannot recover quickly. Females do not carry eggs annually, they take many years to reach sexual maturity and, of the 250,000 - 400,000 eggs they can release at one time, only two or three fish will survive.

Damming and decline

As the last of eight hydroelectric works in the Volga-Kama cascade of dams, the Volgograd Hydroelectric station is the first barrier sturgeon migrating upstream from the Caspian Sea will encounter. In theory sturgeon can pass the dam thanks to a hydraulic fish-lift in the original design. However, it is not clear whether the lift is still operational and, even if it is, its benefits have been counteracted by further dams built upstream. Even if fish do manage to cross the dam, the return journey can prove fatal, as it often requires passing through turbines that can weigh as much as a 747 aeroplane.

The Volgograd Hydroelectric station not only blocks sturgeon migration, but alters the natural flow and temperature of the river. Sturgeon are very sensitive and rely upon signals such as flow speed and temperature to determine when and where to reproduce. Therefore, the dam is said to have directly reduced the spawning grounds of sturgeon from 3,600 hectares to only 430 hectares. For beluga sturgeon in particular, 90 per cent of their natural spawning grounds have disappeared as a result of the Volgograd dam.


An illegal caviar trade is flourishing

It is undeniable that the Volgograd station has played a part in the demise of the Russian caviar industry. Due to rapidly declining wild sturgeon populations, Russia banned commercial sturgeon fishing and black caviar exports in 2002. Now, Russia allows just 9 tonnes of the delicacy to be sold on the domestic market annually, produced by a few government-regulated fish farms. These farms cannot come close to producing enough caviar to meet Russian, let alone worldwide, demand. As a result an illegal trade meets the shortfall, with reports suggesting that 250 tonnes of illegal caviar are produced each year.

Unsurprisingly then, almost all migrating spawners are poached below the Volgograd dam, and a particular hotspot is Russia’s so-called “Caviar Capital”, Astrakhan, around 400km downstream from Volgograd. There, illegal poaching of sturgeon and trade in caviar is said to be rampant – and beluga caviar fetches up to $10,000/kg. This has devastating ecological impacts – when sturgeon are removed at this point in the river the fish have not had the chance to reproduce.

Save the sturgeon

The situation looks bleak. Despite Russia releasing 50m or more sturgeon raised in hatcheries, there is sparse evidence that restocking is successful. In fact, despite such releases there has been an overall decline over the past decade. And it seems counter-intuitive to release millions of juvenile sturgeon when the Volgograd dam still prevents their migration and spawning – and given that downstream poaching is rife. Greater enforcement against poaching would be a good start, along with assertive efforts to help fish move along their natural rivers. (Something similar has helped shortnose sturgeon in the US.)

The ConversationSo, for football fans visiting Volgograd for the World Cup the best way to help sturgeon is to avoid the lure of purchasing any black caviar as souvenirs. But, if you are that way inclined, make sure to stick to customs regulations and try your utmost to ensure the caviar is from reputable farmed sources.

Hannah Dickinson, PhD Researcher in Wildlife Trafficking, University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Could more cities charge employers for parking spaces to help fund local infrastructure?

Look at all that lovely, empty space. Image: Getty.

As government budget cuts continue to bite and competition for funding increases, it’s becoming harder for UK cities to secure the money needed to build or maintain good quality infrastructure. For example, Sheffield’s Supertram network faces a £230m funding gap, and could close unless transport executives can raise the funds to renew the network.

But if central government won’t provide funding, there are other ways for city authorities such as Sheffield to generate income for much needed transport infrastructure. One idea is a workplace parking levy, which is a charge placed on all workplace car parking spaces within a specific boundary.

The premise is simple: each year, the business who owns that space must pay the local authority a set amount of money. Businesses may chose to pay this themselves, or pass the charge on to their employees through car parking fees. The money collected from the levy is used to help fund transport projects within the local area, while also encouraging commuters to shift away from cars and onto other modes of transport.

Pioneer cities

After being adopted in Australian and Canadian cities, the levy was first introduced to the UK in 2012 in the city of Nottingham. During its first year, the charge raised £7m and has continued to raise funds since. The money has allowed Nottingham to keep up its contributions to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that was used to pay for an expansion of the city’s tram network, along with other important transport improvements.

Currently, the cost per space stands at £402 per year, although there are some notable exceptions to the charge: businesses with fewer than 11 spaces don’t have to pay, and there’s no charge for emergency services and disabled parking.

Other cities have begun to follow Nottingham’s path. Both Oxford and Cambridge have made steps towards introducing their own versions of the levy to fund transport improvements.

Manchester considered the levy as a tool to help improve the city’s air quality, although a proposal was recently rejected by the city council on the basis that the levy would need to be applied across the whole of Greater Manchester to work. Sheffield made a small reference to the potential use of a levy in its recent draft transport vision, although it’s not clear how well developed these plans are.

Together with colleagues from the universities of Nottingham and Southampton, I’ve undertaken research which included interviewing a range of key people from Nottingham’s city council, the local tram operator, the Chamber of Commerce, as well as politicians and managing directors of several Nottingham-based businesses, to find out what made Nottingham’s workplace parking levy a success.


Recipe for success

For one thing, Nottingham is a politically stable city. Labour are the dominant party within the local council and have been since 1991, so councillors are less concerned about suffering electoral losses in response to a poorly received policy, and more confident about implementing more radical ideas.

Nottingham’s boundary is also tightly drawn, which meant that deciding where to apply the charge was more straightforward. Manchester’s experience shows that larger cities may have more difficulty in determining who is subject to the charge.

Initially, some businesses saw the charge as a “tax” on them and opposed the policy; media reports at the time warned of businesses leaving the city and moving to nearby economic centres, such as Derby. But there is no evidence to suggest that these worries have materialised in the longer term.

Identifying a piece of infrastructure, such as a tram system, that will be built using funds from the levy also appeared to be an important argument to “sell” the charge to sceptics. So although there was opposition to the workplace parking levy, there was also a lot of support for the tram expansion and the benefits this could bring.

An opportunity to invest

The workplace parking levy offers cities an opportunity to collect and invest large amounts of money in their own infrastructure; or to leverage even greater amounts of money from other sources, which might otherwise be unfeasible.

For Nottingham, a large part of its success is based on the fact that it preemptively used the money raised through the workplace parking levy to leverage significant finance from the UK government, through the PFI deal. To secure these funds to pay for the tram expansion, Nottingham agreed to commit to repaying 35 per cent of the value of the PFI (estimated at £187m). The council has used the levy on an ongoing basis to help it meet these costs.

The experience of Nottingham and other pioneer cities shows that while the workplace parking levy is based on a rather simple premise, introducing one is not a simple process. There will undoubtedly be opposition; the local authority may need to work hard to emphasise the benefits, in order to adopt the policy. And of course, every city and town is different, so there’s no single path to success.

But as local authorities continue tightening their belts in response to ever more challenging budgets, it may not be long before we see more places taking steps to introduce their own workplace parking levy.

The Conversation

Stephen Parkes, Research Associate, Sheffield Hallam University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.