Days after introducing a 90-day fishing moratorium for Armenia’s Lake Sevan, officials in Yerevan are now pushing for a long-term ban in a bid to revive the alpine lake’s dwindling fish population. But enforcing any ban may prove problematic, experts say.
Lake Sevan, the Caucasus’ largest high-altitude lake, with a surface area of about 1,200 square kilometers, provides Armenia with most of its fresh water. It also acts as an economic lifeline for local residents who depend on sales of its fish.
The fishing ban, introduced December 3 by Minister of Environmental Protection Karine Danielian, targets trout and whitefish, two species that scientists say have experienced a precipitous decline in recent years. The ban, which went into effect on December 5, will run until the end of January, a timeframe that covers the breeding season for both fish. Boats that break the ban can be fined and potentially confiscated, along with their catch. Fishing for crawfish and other crustaceans will be allowed from December 28 until December 31 for New Year’s celebrations.
Those caught violating the ban will face a 30,000-50,000 dram ($83.29-$138.81) administrative fine and payment of 5,000 drams ($13.88) for each whitefish caught. Criminal charges could be brought against those catching more than 40 whitefish
The ban is not a first; attempts to stop whitefish harvesting routinely occur in the winter months, but are regularly flouted by local fishermen and market sellers. Ignoring a requirement to use fishing rods, local residents continue to use commercial fishing boats and nets to haul in whitefish.
Whitefish, arguably the lake’s most popular fish for consumption, helped many Armenians to survive the economic crisis of the early 1990s. But, over the past decade, whitefish population numbers have decreased by some 95 percent -- to a mere 170 tons, according to data collected by the National Academy of Sciences’ Hydrology and Ichthyology Institute, which has conducted research on Lake Sevan since 1923. That number is no longer commercially viable, asserts Hydrology and Ichthyology Institute Director Boris Gabrielian. By comparison, in the early 1980s, the lake was estimated to contain approximately 30,000 tons of whitefish.
The lake’s trout population is believed to have been depleted too, although no current population data exists.
“The history of Lake Sevan has never seen before such a grave situation with diminishing fish resources and all its consequent problems,” said Gabrielian. “In this situation, a complex, comprehensive approach is required to fix things.” Gabrielian said he has proposed to the government a three-to-four-year ban on Lake Sevan fishing to recover the whitefish and trout populations. The lake’s whitefish population has been shrinking since 2000, he added.
Ministry of Environmental Protection spokesperson Artsrun Pepanian told EurasiaNet.org that the ministry, in turn, is advocating at least a three-year ban on Lake Sevan fishing, a proposal that is currently under consideration by the government. The ban includes “a series of complicated measures” that would require input from law-enforcement and social welfare agencies.
The ministry, Pepanian continued, is “aware of the difficult situation” in Lake Sevan, but underlined that consideration must be given to the “difficult socio-economic conditions” for local residents that could result from a lengthy fishing ban. During a June 2010 visit to the Lake Sevan region, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian characterized the issue of local poverty as “quite pressing.”
“Prior to imposing a long-term fishing ban, we need to handle this issue first,” Pepanian said in reference to the lack of alternative incomes to fishing.
As in many other regions of Armenia, much of the working-age population living in the vicinity of Lake Sevan have migrated, leaving in search of jobs in Russia or Ukraine. Those who remain often rely on the illegal fishing of whitefish to earn some income.
“We have no other option, what can we do?” said one woman selling whitefish from a wooden box in a downtown Yerevan market. “We can’t survive if we don’t fish.” As the numbers of whitefish have decreased, their prices have skyrocketed; roughly a hundred-fold over the past seven years, from 100 drams (about 40 cents) per fish to 1,500-2,000 dram (about $4-$5.50) per fish today.
Hydrology and Ichthyology Institute Director Gabrielian emphasized that if Lake Sevan’s fishing ban is not enforced, and the lake’s ecological equilibrium restored, nearby residents will have an even tougher time making ends meet. “The lake does not have a single generation of whitefish to make reproduction possible,” Gabrielian said. “The whitefish do not manage to spawn and breed; this means if no measures are taken, it will become absolutely extinct.”
If a long-term ban is imposed, poaching stopped and water quality improved, “the reproduction of fish will be restored” to normal levels, he said.
Some environmentalists are pessimistic that a ban will have much effect. If anti-poaching measures had been taken in the past, “we wouldn’t face the situation we have today,” commented Hakob Sanasarian, chairperson of the Greens Union of Armenia. Sanasarian characterized the current ban as “a mere formality.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan.