Lake Sevan's famous whitefish, or sig, helped Armenians overcome food shortages during the energy crisis of the early 1990s, but have since become threatened with extinction from over-fishing. Unclear environmental policies on the fish and a lack of economic alternatives for local fishermen have further complicated matters.
In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences's Institute of Hydroecology and Ichthyology and a group of Russian scientists determined that the number of Lake Sevan whitefish had decreased by 17 times compared with 1983 levels. While in the mid-1980s the lake contained more than 11,000 tons of whitefish, supply now stands at only 625 tons, according to the findings.
To correct the problem, the Ministry of Environmental Protection introduced a year-long ban on commercial fishing of whitefish in February 2006, but little attention has been paid to it, fishermen and scientists say. Blame is placed on the hard-scrabble economic conditions in the villages surrounding the 1,360-square-kilomter lake.
"Let them give people jobs and we will not fish," said Garik Avetisyan, a middle-aged fisherman. "What shall we do? Die or what? If there're no fish, [our] families will die."
Scientists, many of who favor a long-term ban on fishing for whitefish, say that the difficult living conditions will only grow worse if the whitefish population does not increase. In that case, large-scale commercial fishing may soon become impossible, too. The period from November through December, when the whitefish spawn, is particularly critical, they say.
"Only one generation of whitefish remains in the lake today, instead of several generations in the past," said Boris Gabrielyan, deputy director of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia's Institute of Hydroecology and Ichthyology. "The whitefish is not given time to spawn and propagate. It is not allowed to do that."
"Our ongoing research this year shows that the situation has become worse as compared to last year," Gabrielyan continued. "If poaching continues at the same pace, whitefish will vanish as a commercial fish type. Whitefish resources have been exploited to an inadmissible degree."
Meanwhile, as the whitefish population declines, the lake's eco-system is beginning to change. Gabrieylan charges that the increased presence of organic materials on which the fish feed is turning the lake into a swamp.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection has dismissed the claim, however.
"There can be no discussion about swamps. There is no such thing," Artashes Ziroyan, head of the ministry's Bio-Resources Management Agency, said. "True, the amount of whitefish in the lake is not considered sufficient, but together with colleagues from the interior ministry and other departments, we will manage to preserve the whitefish [population] during the period of the fishing ban."
Despite the ban, whitefish and its caviar can still be found in markets and shops.
In Yerevan, which is the largest market for whitefish, prices for the fish have risen by at least several hundred percent in the last few years. Whitefish now sell for between 300-500 drams, or roughly $0.68 - $1.14, per fish in the capital's markets, and rank among shoppers as one of the most popular fish.
"The fish is a very useful product," Amalia, a seller at one of Yerevan's markets, explained to her customers. Although formerly whitefish was affordable for nearly everyone, she continued, that situation has changed within the past few years. "It is in short supply. That's why prices for it have gone up."
Commenting on the situation this summer, Minister of Environmental Protection Vardan Ayvazyan argued that the declining whitefish population is not "an environmental problem," and suggested that the ministry can do little in the face of persistent fishing by economically deprived residents.
"In many cases, our orders are not obeyed, and no minister can say that during his time in office the control of fishing at Lake Sevan was good," Ayvazyan told reporters at a press conference. "In reality, there is a great problem of poverty [there]. Don't you pity these people [who live there]?"
Ministry officials say that they will work with the interior ministry to monitor the lake regularly and watch for whitefish fishermen. Illegal catches are usually seized, with a report then issued to the media.
But along the lake itself, some fishermen show little concern about the ministry's promises. "There is no ban," they say, smiling. "There is a way around everything."
Nonetheless, young fishermen pushing a metal boat out onto the sky-blue lake say that they know the whitefish is under threat.
"When we fished whitefish three or five years ago, we pulled 300-400 kilograms of it with just two sweep-nets," said 24-year-old Garik Stepanyan, who has been fishing Lake Sevan for six years. "Now I have 11 sweep nets and if I catch 100 whitefish a day, I will consider that a good day."
Even with stricter enforcement of the ban, local fishermen say that they will continue to fish. Other options for economic survival are few.
"We know that it is not allowed to fish whitefish," commented 43-year-old Tigran Khugoyan, a fisherman from the village of Noratus on the lake's western shore. "But if your child is hungry and there is no job, the lake and fishing remain your only hope."
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the Armenianow.com weekly in Yerevan.