"Fossil Trout" Faces Extinction in Balkans, Experts Warn

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
September 15, 2003

The Ohrid trout, an ancient fish living in Europe's oldest lake, faces extinction due to pollution and overfishing. The warning comes from Balkan scientists who say even a proposed five-year commercial fishing ban won't be enough to save the species.

Lying between Albania and Macedonia, Lake Ohrid was formed some three million years ago. Along with Baikal in southeast Russia and Tanganyika in eastern Africa, it's one of the oldest lakes in the world.

Reaching depths of 950 feet (290 meters), this UN World Heritage site is also known as the "museum of living fossils." It provided sanctuary for creatures from the tertiary period which died out elsewhere during the ice ages. The closest relatives of species like the Ohrid trout (Salmo letnica) survive only as fossils.

The 19 mile-long (30-kilometer) lake contains at least 146 endemic species, including 17 types of fish. Two-thirds of its small crabs, 71 percent of its flat worms and 90 percent of its snails also exist nowhere else on Earth.

Scientists say this unique collection of wildlife, having evolved in isolation over millions of years, is now threatened with extinction because of human pressures. The famous Ohrid trout, a local delicacy which grows to over 25 pounds (11 kilograms), has become the focus of these concerns.

While its numbers have been supported by hatcheries around the lake since the 1930s, the twin threats of pollution and overfishing have put its survival in doubt. The adult population has dropped dramatically, with hatchery workers able to collect only half the eggs needed to supplement remaining stocks.

"It is very clear that the fisheries in Lake Ohrid are in immediate danger and rapid management action is required. All the data suggest that trout populations are in severe decline," stated scientists in a recent report for the Lake Ohrid Conservation Project (LOCP). Funded by the World Bank, the project began in 1996 with the aim of preserving the lake's biodiversity.

Commercial fishermen—there are around 90 of them along Ohrid's northern shore alone—took out about 80 tons of trout last year. Many illegal fishermen also operate in the lake, mainly from Albania. In response to concerns over their impact, the Macedonian government has now backed proposals for a five-year trout fishing ban.

Untreated Sewage

But scientists say this won't save the species unless other problems are addressed. These include a lack of cooperation between Macedonia and Albania, and pollution from discharges of untreated sewage.

Oliver Avramoski, watershed management coordinator for Macedonia, said, "If the current situation regarding the management institutions, laws and powers to enact them is not going to change, the long-term effects of a ban would be negligible."

Dejan Panovski, LOCP implementation director in Macedonia, believes a ban could actually harm the region, saying, "Economic considerations are crucial because tourism relies on the trout as a local specialty. Also, many families depend on fishing to make their living. And what happens after five years?"

Continued on Next Page >>


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