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 December 20, 2002 

Spawning Extinction?: Once abundant fish source now decreased in Lake Sevan

Near the shores of Lake Sevan, the law of survival clashes with the law of the land as fishing regulations are largely ignored by village fishermen whose living needs know no season.

Conservationists worry that the year-round harvesting of Armenia's primary source of fish will soon empty the great lake of its resources.

In years past, Sevan was a breeding ground for several varieties of fish, including some that were endemic to the lake. Older fishermen and market salesmen remember when ishkhan (Sevan trout) thrived and were a regional delicacy.

Now most of the trout have disappeared and in their place whitefish, a lesser species, found room to flourish. But environmentalists and conscientious fishermen are concerned that even the hardy whitefish is endangered by over-fishing.

According to Order 148, from November 26 to today (December 20), it is illegal to fish in Sevan, as it is the period of spawning for whitefish.

Few notice the law, paying attention, rather, to the demands of daily livelihood . . .

"We used to catch 2,000 . . .""If it is prohibited to fish then it means that my children will stay hungry," says fisherman Armen Grigoryan, from the village of Noratus. "People have no choice as there is no other work in our village and what else can people do else to keep their families?"

It is a cold November day, the last "legal" day of fishing on Sevan.

Armen, 25 and Igit Asatryan, 21, face a bitter dawn of gray clouds and cutting-cold winds and the angry waves of the big lake.

The young men watch the lake swell against the coming storm while they dress for work. They put on rubber suits that reach the base of their necks and rubber gloves are pulled on over dry woolen gloves. By motor boat they hurry to the center of the lake to get their day in before the weather gets any worse.

Out there somewhere are 11, 200-meter long tow nets, placed there the day before and holding now, Armen and Igit hope, dozens of white fish.

Three hours later the fishing partners return sopping wet and red from the cold. Huge dogs wait impatiently for their share of the catch, and are the first to sample the day's yield.

This day 270 whitefish have found their way into the nets and now find their way into the care of a saleswoman from Charentsavan. She pays the fishermen 100 drams (about 17 cents) for each fish -- two cold days' work (not counting expenses) turning in about $45.

In the market many fishermen like Armen and Igit are selling their take to salespeople from several places throughout Armenia. The salespeople are then hurrying off to reach their trade centers while the fish remain fresh. A fish bought for about 17 cents off the lake will sell for about 23 cents in the city.

Armen and Igit's 270 catches, then, is worth about $16 (profit) to a dealer.

Fishdogs enjoy Armen and Igit's catch"In summer 100 drams is a very good price," Igit says. "Sometimes it happened when we sold the fish only for 5 drams because, as a result of the heat, the fish start to rot as soon as we take them out of the water. Also sometimes it happened when we had to leave rotten fish to seagulls."

If it is a work that robs from nature, it is also one that depends on nature.

And on luck, Armen says.

"One day you can be lucky and another day you are unlucky. Today the nets didn't pay their way as the take was bad. We used to catch 2,000 fish and there even wasn't a place in the boat for standing."

And that simple mathematical evaluation represents the concern of those who recognize Lake Sevan as a major natural resource and contributor to the economy of the republic.

The Ministry of Nature Protection allowed that 600 tons of fish could be taken in 2002. Nobody, however, can say exactly how many tons were fished.

Some indication might be found at one of the fish processing stations of Noratus. There, workers get paid about 1 cent for each fish they scale. The five workers there scale or smoke about 4,000 fish a day (and sometimes up to twice that much).

On average 4,000 whitefish would make about 1,600 kilograms. Over a 10-month period, then, fishermen provide this single processing station with around 480 tons of fish in a year. And there are dozens such processing plants around Lake Sevan.

Whitefish were brought to Lake Sevan from Russia in the 1920s, when research found that the predominant species, ishkhan, fed only off the bottom part of the deep lake. Whitefish, which could flourish from organisms prevalent in the upper waters of the lake, were introduced as a complement to the already-existing species.

For the next 40 years or so, however, whitefish showed no sign of thriving.

But during the 1960s, whitefish started to show an increase, largely due, scientists say, to stagnation that was bad for the lower-water fish, but good for the whitefish.

"All lakes have a tendency toward pre-stagnation and usually that process takes place during 1000 years," says Boris Gabrielyan, deputy director of Hydro-ecology and Ichthyology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences. "However, in this case as a result of anthropogenic factors, those processes are taking place quicker. In fact, during the last 50 years we precipitated the process by approximately 500 years by polluting the lake, by sharply lowering its water level and by increasing its temperature."

Scalers get a penny a fish for their workResearch shows that from 1970 to 1990, whitefish in Lake Sevan increased from about 10,000 tons to about 25,000 tons.

But by 2000, the number had dropped to 5,000 tons. And, as numbers decrease, the size of the fish increase as there is more food for fewer fish.

"From the qualitative point of view it is good, but it is bad from the quantitative point of view," Gabrielyan says. "It means that the number of fish started to decrease.

"Now many fishermen are involved in illegal fishing. These days many fishermen prefer to solve their problems by 'other' methods and not to make things more complicated while dealing with the state."

According to the National Park of Sevan, as of December 16, 1600 whitefish, 72 tow nets, 152 crawfish-traps and 4 water vehicles were found and confiscated from those caught fishing during the prohibition.

"If the fishing of whitefish continues this way then it's possible that the number of that fish will decrease," Gabrielyan says. "Taking into account the fact that these days whitefish is the main commercial type of fish for Armenia, then it's possible that in the nearest future we will not have any normal fish at all."

(To see a photo gallery of fishing Lake Sevan, visit


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