The Moynaq Canned Fish combine (Uzbekistan)

The Moynaq Canned Fish combine (Uzbekistan)

Fish cutlets in tomato or natural sauce, roe from pikeperch (Sudak), filets of Som (probably caught in the Amudarya), soft chunks of carp (Sazan), bream (Leshch) and mackerel (Skumbriia). All different kinds of fish were canned in the Moynaq canned fish combine on the southern shore of the Aral Sea and were sent from there to consumers throughout the Soviet Union. In the Mid-1960s, the water level of the Aral Sea began to fall. Slowly at first. Then faster and faster. In the early 1980s, fishing on the Aral Sea had to be stopped. Around 1990 what was once the fourth largest lake in the world had divided into two small parts. By then, Moynaq, the port city of yore, had long become a city in the desert. The living conditions of the people deteriorated dramatically. Most of the inhabitants left the city and the other former coastal villages. Between the city and the southern part of the lake – or what is left of it – now lie over one hundred kilometers of salt crust soils of the former lake bed, the so-called “Aralkum”.

I came across this black and white photo (and a small pyramid of 12 original cans) in the central exhibition room city museum of Moynaq in northern Karakalpakstan. It was part of a photo album bound in velvet red cloth. It was displayed on a small table in front of a wall with portraits of former fishermen, sailors and captains of the once proud Aral Sea fleet.

The album (46 pages, approx. 48x36cm) with the golden combine-logo contains 109 professional black and white photographs, some of them full-page, from the heyday of the combine displaying the entire process from catching to processing the fish as well as the life of the combine: Ships on the high seas and in the harbor unloading cargo, the plant premises and its workforce in the canteen, group photos and individual portraits of fishermen, male and female workers in the cannery, meetings of the combine management, examinations in the laboratory, veterans and political training courses, the plant's own kindergarten, library and construction brigade, and the sunset over harbor facilities and the sea. Typewritten descriptions of the photos and a short history of the combine round off this unique piece, which was probably produced by the management of the canning factory in the Mid-1970s in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Uzbek SSR.

Already in 1927, a Soviet expedition set out to explore the possibilities of developing a fishing industry in the Aral Sea. The expedition concluded that the “production of white fish", mainly carp and perch, could be increased tenfold from just under 5,000 tons per year at that time. Moynaq and Aralsk (on the northern shore of the lake) were to be developed into fishing centers and its industrial enterprises were under the direct control of Moscow.
In 1932, the construction of the fish cannery began in Moynaq. The factory was designed to produce 10 million cans per year and was completed in 1941. During World War II, the town became an important location for supplying Soviet troops with food. By the 1960s and 1970s, Moynaq was a prosperous Soviet industrial city and popular resort with mild sea climate.

This (short) post war boom of Moynaq can be illustrated by the development of the cannery. In 1940, it produced 10,000 cans of fish; in 1958, it was 21 million cans. The combine was thus one of the largest enterprises in Karakalpakstan. The fishing fleet was upgraded. Shipyards, ports, and fish factories were established. Until 1973, the fishing industry was one of the most important sectors of Karakalpakstan's economy and the Aral Sea provided about 3 percent of the total Soviet catch. In 1957, 48,000 tons of fish were landed. 7,000 tons of it came from the delta areas of the Amu and Syrdarya rivers.

With the construction of the Karakum-Canal (1954) and the intensification of cotton cultivation in the early 1960s, the water inflow fell far below the evaporation rate of the lake. The lake level began to drop. The fishing industry and the lake were deliberately sacrificed by Soviet planners to the more profitable cotton industry. The decline occurred as rapidly as the buildup: In the early 1970s, attempts were still being made in the Moynaq area to stabilize the water level by building dams. In the mid-1970s, only 30,000 of the former 60,000 people at the Aral Sea were still working in the fishing industry. In the early 1980s, there were only 700 left. In 1990, five thousand people still lived in Moynaq. At that time, most of them still worked in the cannery, which processed fish delivered in refrigerated trucks from the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean until it finally closed that year. This was the end of the fishing industry in Karakalpakstan.

Additional Literature:
Aral Histories. Geschichte und Erinnerung im Delta des Amudarja, edited by Askar Djumashev, Olaf Günther & Thomas Loy. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2009. (= Ingeborg BALDAUF (ed.): Erinnerungen an Zentralasien, Vol. 4).

Thomas Loy is a Research fellow, Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences