Lake Baikal in Siberia comprises one fifth of the worlds unfrozen fresh water, but its precious fish stocks are disappearing
Lake Baikal is undergoing its gravest crisis in recent history, experts say, as the government bans the seize of a signature fish that has lived in the world’s deepest lagoon for centuries but is now under threat.
Holding one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, Baikal in Russia’s Siberia is a natural wonder of” exceptional value to evolutionary science” meriting its index as a world heritage site by Unesco.
Baikal’s high biodiversity includes over 3,600 plant and animal species, most of whom are endemic to the lake.
Over the past several years, nonetheless, the pond, a major international tourist allure, has been crippled by a series of detrimental phenomena, some of which remain a whodunit to scientists.
They include the disappearance of the omul fish, rapid growth of putrid algae and the death of endemic species of sponges across its vast 3.2 m-hectare( 7.9 m-acre) area.
Starting in October, the government introduced a ban on all commercial fishing of omul, a species of the salmon household only may be in Baikal, fearing” irreversible outcomes for its population”, the Russian fisheries agency said.
” The total biomass of omul in Baikal has more than halved since 15 years ago” from 25 m tonnes to simply 10 m, the agency said.
Local fishery biologist Anatoly Mamontov said the decrease is likely caused by uncontrollable fish poaching, with extra pressure coming from the climate.
” Baikal sea inventory is tied to climate ,” he said.” Now there is a drought, rivers develop shallow, there are less nutrients. Baikal’s surface heats up and omul does not like warm water .”
Unesco last month” is also concerned that the ecosystem of the pond is reported to be under significant stress” and a drop in fish stocks is just one observable effect.
The Baikal omul, a well-known speciality, was for centuries the main local source of meat, eaten salted or smoked, and especially important given the region had not yet been farming.
Another peril to the lake’s ecosystem is the explosion of algal buds unnatural to Baikal with thick mats of rotting Spirogyra algae blanketing pristine sandy beaches, which some scientists say indicates that the reservoir can no longer absorb human pollution without consequence.
” I am 150% sure that the reason is the wastewater runoff” from townships without proper sewage treatment, particularly of phosphate-containing cleansers, said Oleg Timoshkin, biologist at the Russian Academy of Science’ Limnological Institute in Irkutsk.
Fifteen years ago, some of the lake’s picturesque villages had only two hours of electricity a day, but now improved power access means that” every babushka rents out chambers and has a laundry machine ,” he said.
Indeed the pond, which is 1,700 m( 5,580 ft) deep, and its tourism now offer a subsistence for many inhabitants to supplant fishing.
Foreign guests often spend time at Baikal while doing a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and in recent years more Chinese have been coming as Russia eased visa requirements.
Russians adoration the region, too, for its hiking roads, camping and spectacular scenery.
Timoshkin has travelled the length of Baikal testing for Spirogyra prevalence and said that in three critical regions near populated regions” the bottom does not look like Baikal anymore” and algae is pushing out oxygen-loving molluscs and crustaceans.
Near the town of Listvyanka, the sightseer hub closest to regional centre Irkutsk,” there used to be underwater woods of sponges 15 years ago , now they are all dead ,” Timoshkin said.
Last year, Timoshkin tested 170 types of sponges throughout Baikal’s coast, and” only 11% seemed healthy ,” he said.” When you take a dead sponge to the surface it smells like a corpse .”
If dumping polluted water into the lake doesn’t stop,” shallow coastal regions will change severely ,” he said, calling for a ban on phosphate-containing substances in the region and house” the best sewage treatment plants in Russia .”
President Vladimir Putin in August complained of” extremely high pollution” while visiting Lake Baikal, calling its preservation a” government priority “.
A special 1999 statute in Russia spells out measures to protect Lake Baikal. The government is also putting 26 bn rubles( about $452 m, EUR3 85 m euros) into a cleanup program, which began in 2012, to fund therapy facilities, though local experts say much of the money get wasted.
In one town, Babushkin, on Baikal’s shore, billions of dollars were spent on a brand new treatment plant but bacteria meant to purify the sea fail to work in the Siberian winter, local media said.
” As usual, the strictness of our laws is compensated by the fact that following them is optional ,” said Buryatia-based ecologist Sergei Shapkhayev.” Money is being allocated but it gets stolen .”
Science funding has also grown thin at a time when studying Baikal is most vital, both Timoshkin and Mamontov said.” How are you able cut funding during a crisis ?” Timoshkin asked.
” That’s like firing epidemiologists during a smallpox outbreak .”