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Fishing at Lake Issyk-Kul

Commercial fishing at Lake Issyk-Kul began in the 1890s, with the arrival of Russian colonists who took advantage of the 22 native species that the lake had to offer, many of which were good to eat, By the 1930s the populations of some of the more scarce species had declined, so commoner species like chebachok or Issyk-Kul dace (Leuciscus berg/) were targeted, a fish with a population that was considered to be virtually inexhaustible.

In an attempt to increase the value of the lake's fish stocks, more valuable fish like trout were introduced around this time. The Sevan trout (Salmo ischchan), a species endemic to Armenia, was first introduced to the lake in the 1930s, partly to boost fish stocks in the lake and partly to conserve a species that was becoming rare in its native Armenia. The trout grew to a large size in their new home - some older fisherman claim they would catch 17kg specimens on occasion - but the project was not an unqualified success as the alien trout ravaged many of Issyk-Kul's native species like chebachok, and within a few decades catches of this once plentiful fish had declined dramatically.

Later, in the 1950s, a few other non-native species were introduced - bream, pikeperch and carp - and, in the early 1970s, efforts to restock the lake took a different turn when a plan was devised to gradually reduce the number of chebachok to a minimum and to turn the lake into a reservoir for valuable fish like trout and whitefish, At this point, the Sevan whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus), another Armenian species, was introduced, along with omul, a fish from Lake Baikal in Siberia.

Like the Sevan trout, the introduction of whitefish turned out to be a misjudgement in ecological terms. Efforts were soon made to restrict their number but it was too late, as within a very short time the Sevan whitefish had established itself as the major component of the lake's fish stock. This has inevitably resulted in widespread changes in Lake Issyk-Kul's fish ecology. The number of most native species has diminished overall, while some species like the naked osman have virtually disappeared altogether. The lake now produces relatively low fish yields.

It should not be forgotten that Lake Issyk-Kul is an oligotrophic lake (low in nutrients), with a low productivity, and that it could never realistically be expected to produce large sustainable fish stocks. Nowadays, with an increased population living around the lake, together with a large number of annual visitors, the demand for fish far outweighs supply. Due to Lake Issyk-Kul's growing importance for recreation, one management solution might be to concentrate on sport and recreational fishing in order to satisfy the demands of visitors and bring in income. The trouble with this is that the two most voracious feeders on the lake's endemic species the Sevan trout and pikeperch - are those very species which are most in demand by recreational fishermen.

Poaching is a widespread problem too, and has soared to massive levels in recent years. Bans on fishing during the spawning period have been introduced, but this being central Asia, corruption comes into play, and many inspectors are said to be either involved in poaching themselves, or are intimidated by the threat of violence from poachers who gang together in groups.