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Ohrid fate awaits ancient trout in the Balkans

Paul Brown in Ohrid
Monday July 28, 2003
The Guardian


A "living fossil", a trout weighing 17kg (37lb), which is found only in Europe's oldest and fabled Ohrid lake, faces extinction unless it is protected from commercial fishing, experts have warned.

The 3m-year-old Ohrid Lake, which lies between Albania and Macedonia, was declared a world heritage site in 1979 because its depth of 289 metres (948ft) provides a micro-climate that prevented it freezing in the ice age and allowed ancient fish to survive.

The World Bank has spent five years on a project to save the species. But pollution and illegal fishing, some using dynamite, has prompted Albanian and Macedonian environment ministers to consider a five-year ban on trout fishing, despite the effects on the Macedonian tourist trade and on fishermen's incomes.

Ministers from both governments have publicly backed such a ban, and will meet next month to discuss the plan.

As well as its ancient species, the lake has another quality in its water purity, with visitors able to peer 22 metres (72ft) down through crystal clear waters. For centuries locals drank direct from the lake, without fear of disease. Ohrid city, on the lake's banks, is full of ancient churches and five gold masks from pre-Roman times have been found nearby.

The fossil fish, so-called because geologists have found similar specimens in rocks, are a delicacy, with the annual catch measured in hundreds of tonnes. Numbers have been maintained by hatcheries which capture pregnant trout and return small fingerlings.

Only 80 tonnes were caught last year, however, with many too small to breed. Only 4m eggs were obtained for hatching, in contrast with the 7.5m target.

Biologist Dusica Boeva, from the Ohrid Hydrological Institute which runs the hatchery, said: "The numbers are going down and down, we have to do something drastic, and stopping fishing for five years is an essential start."

But the burgeoning populations along the 51-mile shoreline - 106,000 in Macedonia and 61,000 in Albania - threaten the beauty and special qualities of the lake, its plants and animals. The reed beds in which the fish breed and feed are making way for hotels and water sports.

Work starts later this year to provide the first sewage works on the Albanian side to prevent all settlements pouring their effluent into the lake.

Unesco, which is responsible for designating world heritage sites, is reviewing Ohrid waters and its wildlife to gauge if it still has the special qualities required for such a designation.

If the lake is deteriorating as badly as many experts believe then Lydia Totuzovska, Unesco's executive director in Macedonia, says the site may be placed on the "danger list", a preparation for it losing its world heritage site, damaging both countries' hopes of developing its tourist trade.

The exceptionally clear water rises in giant springs on the southern shore at the foot of a 2,265-metre mountain, a forested national park containing bears, wolves and wild boar. The water comes from another large but shallow lake called Prespa, some 153 metres higher, and is purified as it travels through the limestone.

The lake is so deep that it takes 70 years for all the water in Ohrid to be replaced. Its one outflow is down the River Drin which drops into the Adriatic 66 miles away and provides hydro-electric power for most of Macedonia and Albania.

Apart from sewage another pollution problem for the lake is the river Sateska, which once ran into the Drin but was diverted into Ohrid in 1963, bringing polluting silt into the lake along with a flow of plastic bottles and other waste, many tonnes of which have to be collected each year from the tourist beaches.

German scientists are about to report on a scheme either to divert the river back to its old course or develop a series of traps on the river to collect silt and rubbish.

Vladislav Zupan, environmentalist coordinator in the tourist town of Struga, where the Drin flows out of the lake, said: "This is a very expensive and difficult headache for us. I favour diversion back to its old course but we will need outside help. Macedonia has not got enough money."

Despite the tourists who come to eat the fabled Ohrid trout, Mr Zupan favours a ban, and suggests that fishermen could be found alternative employment in the hatcheries.

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