"The fish of Paliastomi still haven't been thoroughly studied" | Researching the Kolkheti National Park

Author: Aleksandre Keshelashvili

07.09.22
Edition: Environment
Topic: Environment

This article was commissioned by Publika and was originally published on that site in Georgian.


Kolkheti National Park and Paliastomi Lake make up crucial parts of Georgia's protected areas. The distinguished landscapes of Kolkheti National Park, which are uncommon for Georgia, attract the attention of so many people. One will probably often come across beautiful photos or videos of sailing tours on Lake Paliastomi.

However, there is more to Kolkheti National Park, located near the Black Sea, as its landscape and habitats are outstanding. 

Paliastomi Lake, situated in Kolkheti National Park, is among the most important fishing reservoirs in Georgia. Despite considerable human intervention over the years, the lake is still remarkably productive. 

The lake’s ichthyofauna—fish population—has not been uniform - it has amazing biodiversity. Freshwater fish, which spawned in various areas of the lake and the rivers flowing into it, have found favorable conditions here. It was also a breeding ground for sturgeons and many mullet species.

However, since the 1930s, there has been a notable decrease in the number of freshwater fish, while the variety and quantity of marine forms tolerant to low salinity have surged. Different studies show that the number of large predators in Paliastomi Lake, such as catfish, bream, perch, common roach, and others, has dramatically decreased. Sturgeon, pike perch, and others, which were historically plentiful at Paliastomi Lake, are no longer present.

Even though Kolkheti National Park is distinguished by its ichthyofauna, there are many other reasons that make it an interesting research area, said Albina Mamedova, project manager at the non-governmental organization Society for Nature Conservation.

"Kolkheti is a significant place not only because of its aquatic ecosystem but also because it is a very important habitat for migratory birds. Moreover, there is a unique Kolkhi forest. But we face a huge problem in terms of invasive species," said Albina Mamedova and added that invasive fish, mammals, and plants are prevalent. 

Kolkheti National Park was chosen for the international research project precisely because of its international importance, diversity of habitats, and the challenges that it faces.

The Joint Monitoring of Environmental Protection in the Black Sea Basin Countries is an ongoing joint project of the four Black Sea Basin countries.

According to Albina Mamedova, the project aims to identify existing problems in the Black Sea basin countries' protected areas to develop the necessary methodology for resolving them. The first stage of the project is collecting data to resolve existing threats.

The research in Kolkheti National Park includes air and water sample collection and the study of essential species residing on the park’s territory, including birds, mammals, and fish.

In order to study the common fishes of Paliastomi Lake and their conditions, Sabuko has teamed up with Bela Jafoshvili, a professor at the Ilia State University.

"The project itself does not include monitoring, which takes many years to carry out. The project will help us prepare grounds to make future monitoring possible and to agree on a standard methodology."

"It is critical to have sustainable biodiversity management, which should include the fish population and fishing practices. Sustainable management implies observing indicators such as the size and weight of fish, and the population structure."

"By developing a common methodology and subsequently collecting data, we will study the age structure of the population of this or that species and investigate the problems they face," said Bela Japoshvili.

How is the local ecosystem studied? 

Sabuko works in several directions at the Kolkheti National Park. Among other things, researchers study the Kolkhi forest, populations of birds and mammals, and ichthyofauna. They observe populations of invasive species in both flora and fauna. Research is being conducted using a relatively new method that involves drones.

Sabuko has also set up camera traps in the vicinity of Paliastomi Lake, which helps to study otters' habitat. One of the project's essential components is studying Kolkheti National Park’s ichthyofauna.

However, as Mamedova explained, even though Kolkheti National Park is interesting for research, it turned out to be quite a difficult place for fieldwork. According to her, Sabuko's researchers studied Paliastomi Lake for the first time and had to overcome many unforeseen difficulties. 

"Many components need to be considered, including the weather and safety measures, which is why we cannot access certain areas. We need a group of people and a boat during the fieldwork because one cannot go there alone. Even before we start bird banding, there are so many places we need to visit, and Kolkata National Park is huge."

"From Guria to Adjara, there are so many areas [we need to visit]. Temporal and natural factors make research harder. It is a difficult area to work on: in general, it's harder to work on the water than on land," said Albina Mamedova.

Bela Japoshvili described the stages of researching ichthyofauna in detail. She said that the research involved organizing field trips where they obtained data on the ichthyofauna of Paliastomi Lake.

To begin with, the preparatory stage is very labor-intensive, Japoshvili said. A permit is required for fishing; therefore, researchers need to contact the Ministry of Environmental Protection, usually at least one month in advance. To obtain a permit, it is necessary to provide detailed information about the reasons and goals of fishing, and a description of the equipment should also be provided. And, of course, not everyone is granted permission.

As Bela Japoshvili said, preparatory work is one of the hardest parts of the research. But the fieldwork stage itself is very labor-intensive too. At this stage, a group of scientists enters the lake by boat and selects favorable locations for fishing. They set up nets and wait for 2 to 3 hours.

"We install a net, set it up, and wait in a nearby area. Then we return to take the net out. To give you an idea, we have had a net 150-180 meters long and 1 meter deep. When removing the net, we check the fish on the spot - we take measurements, identify them, mark their species, and take photos. We keep some of them and release others back in the water," said Bela Japoshvili.

She also said that usually, more than one net is placed in the water for each trip, making the fieldwork more time-consuming. It is often difficult for one scientist studying fish life to conduct the whole process without a team of researchers.

In order to identify fish species, genetic sampling is required, so researchers cut off a part of fish's fins.

To determine the age of a fish, fish scales are removed with tweezers. As Bela Japoshvili explained, this is a simple and convenient method, but sometimes it's impossible because some fishes do not have scales at all, or if they do, they are no good for observation.

"The age of the fish allows us to judge how healthy the ichthyofauna is. If we identify a gap, it already shows that something is not right," the researcher told us.

What will the research data reveal?

Albina Mamedova said that the current project would reveal challenges that protected areas face in the four countries due to human behavior.

Bela Japoshvili said that their goal is to study the ecosystem of Paliastomi Lake. According to her, the monitoring will help start studies of the ecosystem, which have not been carried out for a long time.

The researcher further said that Paliastomi Lake used to be known for its large quantity of fish. It is often said that there used to be significantly more fish in this lake. As fishermen recall, there used to be sturgeons, herrings, and other species in the lake, but they are very hard to find now. Japoshvili said they also came across small herring during their field trips. With this research, they may be able to scientifically confirm that herrings reside in the lake. 

"Herring is believed to be a local inhabitant of Paliastomi Lake. According to our sources, two species of herring used to enter the lake, but they have not been found here for a long time. Older sources noted that herring was a prominent inhabitant of Paliastomi Lake, which has not yet been acknowledged in the world's scientific circles. Therefore, it will be very important if we confirm this with our studies."

No such research has been conducted here for a long time. Among other things, this research will help determine what species still reside in this area.

"The ichthyofauna of Paliastomi Lake is very interesting; however, it has not been thoroughly researched yet. These studies will help collect data through monitoring and allow us to confirm local, endemic species not recognized by the international scientific community,"said Bela Japoshvili.

The researcher emphasized the importance of monitoring as it will give scientists valuable information about the local environment. The researcher emphasized that short-term monitoring cannot provide the same insights as monitored conducted over a long period. 

Jafoshvili said that such monitoring has been going on for decades in many developed countries, such as Finland and Sweden. 

"With the data collected from the monitoring, which is the basis of this study, we are learning about fish biodiversity. We find out in which species we have a problem – whether it is a disease or something else. We learn the composition of the population and the age structure. According to this structure, we can judge how healthy the population is and whether it has survived." 

"We also get information on invasive species, which and how many foreign species have entered. For example, in Paliastomi Lake, we will learn more about the presence of bream, and then we can discuss and plan various measures to control or limit the population. So, we can get a lot of interesting information from this research," said Bela Japoshvili.

However, according to her, the ongoing research is important not only for adopting a common methodology and creating the basis for monitoring; it also provides interesting data. 

Albina Mamedova also discussed the importance of the research findings. She said that this research provides information about the situation in terms of invasive species.

"Before this research, we thought that the nutria, an invasive species, had not invaded the otter's habitat to such an extent, but the current situation turned out to be quite dire. The otters’ habitat has decreased significantly in recent years; thus, it would be great if a separate study would start in this direction and if the appropriate resources were allocated."

We also receive important data from the foresters. Specialists at the national park say that in the forests and peaty areas of Kolkheti, invasive plants interfere with local species and change the environment.

Unfortunately, there are no known methods to fight against these plants; they can only be removed by hand. In Kolkhi forests, it is impossible to do that," said Albina Mamedova, adding that it would be important to continue this research.

Bela Japoshvili said that getting the finances to continue their research is the biggest challenge for scientists. According to Japoshvili, they will need financial assistance to purchase fishing tools and fund field trips to continue the research after the project is over. Extensive resources will be required to work more intensively with fishermen.

According to Japoshvili, scientists should study not only biodiversity but also the water. At least the chemical and physical characteristics of the water should be studied together with the biological components.

On the social side of the project, why is the current research important for people?

According to Bela Japoshvili, the social aspect of Paliastomi Lake is very important. Even though it is a protected area, fishing is allowed throughout the year with the exception of some species.

For the local population, Paliastomi Lake is a source of livelihood, and many families depend on it. This research is significant for people because they worry that the biodiversity is changing, the water level has decreased, and that fisheries have deteriorated.

However, the researcher added that relations with fishermen remain a challenge for them. According to her, the local fishermen did not trust scientists, especially in the beginning, before they learned what and why they were researching there.

"Going out in the field with them and discussing problems together helps to build a relationship with them. We explain to them that this scientific research will help them too." 

"So far, within the framework of our research, we have caught eight fish species in Paliastomi Lake and one more from the Phichori River. For better results, the involvement of the government and fishermen is essential," the researcher told us.

Japoshvili said that they know from experience that scientists will find it difficult to collect enough materials on their own. The fishermen make a significant contribution to the collection of monitoring data.

"Therefore, it is important to communicate with fishermen, to work with them. The Agency of Protected Areas makes a database, but it's important for the data to be reliable. "Fishermen should know the rules they should follow when collecting the data; besides, rangers should write valid information into the database," said Bela Japoshvili. 

However, the researcher believes that a government plays the most crucial role in this process. It's the government that determines how the process proceeds and how devoted they will be to preserving the purity of water and its research. According to Japoshvili, it is possible to involve the central and local governments, despite their limited resources.

"Everything should be interconnected; the local municipality, the administration of the national park, and the central government should work together," said Japoshvili.

The administration of the Kolkheti National Park actively cooperates with Sabuko in the research process. Rangers assist the group of researchers with various issues.

Davit Grigolia, the head of Kolkheti National Park, said that the current research would help them significantly in the future. According to him, based on the collected data, certain conclusions can be drawn, future policies can be better defined, and specific actions can be planned for better preservation of the national park's ecosystem.

"Over the years, there has been a trend that Paliastomi Lake has been dying. Paliastomi is not hitting the same mark as before, and the research of Sabuko will give us some foundation and help us find ways to eliminate the problems."

"My function, our function, the function of the Kolkheti National Park, is to protect, maintain, manage and preserve this area. Appropriate guidelines will be laid down, which will make our work more efficient. Therefore, I have high expectations that in the near future, we will be able to take specific steps forward," said Davit Grigolia.


Albina Mamedova said that after the completion of the project, they would have recommendations for the government. The national park will have more reasons to adjust its management plan.

But according to her, the resources of the national park are also limited, and it will be essential to involve the central government in implementing these recommendations.

Albina Mamedova said that the research is ongoing in several countries, and its findings may be interpreted in broader terms to define ways to resolve the existing problems. The importance of the research may be not only local but also cross-border.

"This cross-border cooperation will demonstrate the points of intersection, as well. One way or another, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Armenia face similar challenges compared to Western European countries." 

Albina Mamedova said that Eastern European countries and the Caucasus region share a somewhat common political past. Unlike Western European countries, they have a relatively weaker economy, and the sustainable environmental management practices are still in the process of formation. 

Besides, the weaker economy means it is difficult to obtain sufficient funds for research. Therefore, it is still challenging to conduct extensive research and monitoring. The cooperation between these countries should be fruitful for finding common solutions across common borders.


 

Common borders, common solutions.

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