Thursday, July 26, 2007

Far Eastern Marine Reserve (July 17 – July 25, 2007)

I was very lucky to get to spend July 17-July 25 in the Far Eastern Marine Reserve, which is located in the Peter the Great Bay in the northwestern part of the Sea of Japan (see map at right; Peter the Great Bay is the water immediately off the coast of Vladivostok). The waters of the Peter the Great Bay are the most diverse of all the marine waters in Russia. This is partly because the Bay is situated in an area that is not too warm for northern species, and not too cold for southern species. So not only do local species inhabit here, but there are also migrants from northern waters, like the Sea of Okhotsk (which separates Kamchatka from the Russian mainland), and from southern waters (migrants from the south appear in the late summer and fall). The reserve is home to seals, huge mollusks and scallops, trepang (a rare sea cucumber believed to have medicinal properties), many rare species of birds, and more.

The Far Eastern Marine Reserve is a zapovednik, which means it is a strict protected area that is technically not open to tourists, although some tourism is developing here as an income supplement for the reserve. The reserve’s main activities include environmental education, scientific research and processing violations of nature protection regulations. I got to learn about all of these activities while I was at the reserve, as well as see some tourism in action.

The Far Eastern Marine Reserve was created in 1978 and is also a biosphere reserve. While most Russian zapovedniks are run by the Ministry of Natural Resources, the marine reserve was created under the Russian Academy of Sciences and until fall of 2006 was run directly by the Institute of Marine Biology. Now it along with 3 other reserves is administered jointly by the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

I took a lot of pictures and so will try to tell about my time in the reserve through my photos. You can click on any photo to enlarge it. The first two photos (not including the map) here are pictures of the Srednyaya Inlet, where the reserve maintains a ranger station, which is where I lived from July 20-25. The Marine Reserve is made up of 3 parts: a small piece of Popov Island near Vladivostok, where the reserve has an environmental education center, nature museum and six guided trails; an eastern part, which includes the Srednyaya Inlet; and a southern part (which I did not see!).

Popov Island and Environmental Education at the Marine Reserve

From July 17-19 I lived at the Marine Reserve’s environmental education center on Popov Island, which is a 90-minute (and $1.40) boat ride from Vladivostok. Although the reserve also works with local schools to increase knowledge about Russian nature reserves and nature conservation (by giving presentations, offering some seminars for teachers, etc.), most of the reserve’s environmental education activities are focused on Popov Island. Pictured is the sign for the reserve’s environmental education center and nature museum.

A lot of visitors from Vladivostok and throughout Russia come to Popov Island to vacation here in late July, August and early September, when the weather here is beautiful. So there are plenty of people around to educate about the importance of the sea! (Since only a small part of Popov Island is protected in the Marine Reserve, visitors abound everywhere else.) This is a picture of ocean from Popov Island on a sunny day. There are cottages that visitors can rent, and many people also just come with a tent and camp out right on the water on public beaches. Visitors can also stay at the marine reserve’s environmental education center, which has 60 beds, for only 200 rubles per night. The environmental education center is booked solid from the end of July through early September. Most visitors are kids participating in camps, adults participating in seminars, or tourists who are part of a tour firm’s organized trip to Popov Island. Not all of the seminars and camps are related to environmental topics, although some are. (When I was there there were kids at a leadership camp and adults at a psychological training seminar staying at the Marine Reserve’s environmental education center.)

In the same building as the environmental education center there is a museum about the ocean and its protection. The museum has existed since 1977 (first as just an exhibit), although the environmental education department of the reserve has existed only since 1996.) Here kids are checking out models of seals found in the reserve. Visitors can take a guided tour of the museum for 200 rubles (about $8.00) total for a group of up to 25. There are groups that order tours in advance, as well as tourists and vacationers on the island who just stop by.

The environmental education center also houses a room with a bunch of materials for activities related to nature conservation. Here kids can make sculptures out of sea shells, design posters related to nature protection, watch films, read books, and more.

In the next pictures some students from Irkutsk State University are participating in one of the reserve’s 6 guided tours. This tour is called “Ecology and Ancient Peoples,” and these kids are pretending to be two tribes fighting over brides. (Whichever tribe wins the tug of war gets the bride. In reality, the tribes would actually just pull on the bride’s arms, and whichever side let go first lost the bride. Or, if neither side let go, the bride lost an arm.)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Marine Reserve developed several trails on Popov Island (only one of which is on the territory of the reserve). They include themes like “Ecology of Popov Island,” “The littoral zone,” “Plants of Popov Island,” “Birds of Popov Island,” “Geology of Popov Island,” and “Ecology and Ancient Peoples.” (There were actually ancient societies on Popov Island, and you can dig up their artifacts (mostly pottery) on the Ecology and Ancient Peoples trail. Kids can also make pottery in the environmental education center.) Tourists can order a tour on one of the trails for 400 rubles (about $15) for a group of up to 25. The tours are 2 hours long and are the same for adults or children. (As Galya, one of the environmental education staff explained to me, adults are really just big kids, after all.)

Guests of the environmental education center, whether they are tourists staying there through a tour firm, participants in a seminar or kids at a camp, are required to buy the zapovenik’s tours as part of the deal to get to stay at the center. (Whether they take the tours or not is their decision – but most people do – they’re pretty fun!) These students from Irkutsk came to Popov Island to do scientific field work, but they ordered this tour for fun. In this last picture one of the students has been selected as the tribe’s shaman, and the blonde next to him is interpreting his words of wisdom for the tribe.

Eastern Part of the Marine Reserve, Science, Tourism and Nature Protection

On July 20 I left Popov Island to go to the “real” reserve (since most of Popov Island isn’t protected, it doesn’t really count). I was picked up by the reserve’s cutter (pictured right docked at the Srednyaya Inlet pier – our destination). The cutter is called the Vnimatel’nyi (“Careful”), and it was taking 3 ichthyologists from the Institute of Marine Biology, Andrei, Volodya (Vladimir) and Ira (Irina) to the eastern part of the reserve to do scientific research on coastal fish populations. They were taking me with them to show me how they work. More below.

When we left Popov Island on July 20 the weather was gorgeous, and we continued to have amazing weather the whole trip. Apparently the summer has begun in southern Primorye! Up until now we have had lots of fog and drizzle since mid-May, including a day-long downpour on July 19. After about a 4-hour trip south we arrived at our destination, the reserve’s ranger station (kordon) at the Srednyaya Inlet, pictured here. The buildings from left to right are: a banya (sauna where you can also wash), a gazebo with a table and a great view, and a house recently build by newly-rich Russians. At the top of the staircase leading up from the pier there is also a house where the ranger at Srednyaya Inlet lives. There are two rangers who work at Srednyaya on one-month shifts. While we were there the ranger was Ivan, one of the nicest people I have ever met.

If you are thinking, wow, that ranger station seems really nice, you’re right, it is! Most Russian reserves suffer from major budget shortfalls and ranger stations usually consist of one building that is not in great shape. But the Marine Reserve has an advantage of being very scenic, and in order to make up for budget shortfalls, it allows a few forms on tourism. One form is allowing rich Russians from Vladivostok to come to the reserve on the weekends to vacation. They come on their own boats (pictured). These rich tourists get a nice quiet place to vacation (many beaches near Vlad are very crowded). In return they conclude a contract with the reserve to rent the land where the ranger station is located for ten years and make improvements on this land. At the end of the ten years, anything they build becomes property of the reserve (unless the reserve renews the rental agreement).

There are 8 ranger stations in the Marine Reserve, and the territory of almost all of them is being rented by some rich Russians. At the Srednyaya Inlet ranger station these Russians built the staircase leading up from the pier, remodeled the banya, remodeled half of the ranger’s house, build the gazebo and another house for themselves (the two-story wooden house with the red roof two pictures ago). Obviously, no one can use the facilities built by these rich Russians without their permission. These rich tourists-renters were vacationing at the Srednyaya Inlet with their friends from July 20-22, when we were there. Ira and I lucked out and got their permission to stay in the remodeled half of the ranger’s house. Above is a picture of the inside – check out that fireplace! When Putin came to the Marine Reserve in 2004, he spent several hours in this room in this house – he had a meeting there and took a break. So, that’s right – Ira and I lived in the same house as Putin – if you’re not impressed, you should be!

Here is a picture of the outside of the ranger’s house. The location was just beautiful. There was also a convenient and very comfortable hammock right outside. The rangers at this station keep a garden where they grow everything from beets to strawberries, and where it smells wonderfully of cilantro.

The rich Russians who vacation at the Srednyaya Inlet also have kayaks, which they leave at the inlet even when they’re not there. So Ira and I went kayaking! I have never been kayaking before, and it was a lot of fun. Kayaks can go pretty fast – even when you feel like you’re not moving, you are.

Ivan and the other ranger at Srednyaya bought themselves a dog this year, Dik. He is a super energetic puppy. They say the dogs here don’t last too long, unfortunately – tigers migrate into the territory of the reserve in the winter, following the wild boars that come in – and tigers love dogs – mmmm…yummy, a real delicacy. Here is Dik playing in the water on the shore of the Srednyaya Inlet.

The height of poaching season in the reserve is the spring and fall. Most poachers come into the waters of the reserve to harvest trepang, a sea cucumber which is rare and is highly sought after on the Chinese market for its medicinal properties. Poachers also come into the reserve to harvest scallops. This picture is from a lookout point about a 5-minute walk from the Srednyaya Inlet ranger station – obviously, you can see far out into the ocean. During poaching season Ivan sits here all day (he built a bench nearby) and looks for poachers. If he sees someone, he radios over to the other ranger stations and they go out on their motor boats to tell the poachers to leave the territory of the reserve.

At this time of year there is also a problem with residents of nearby towns driving on all-wheel drive vehicles to the beaches of the reserve to tan and go for a swim. We saw about 5 groups (of 2-4 people) of these kinds of tourists while we were there. They don’t have permission to be in the reserve, which is literally only the water, or on the coast, which is the buffer zone, so Ivan would normally take his motor boat over and tell them to leave. However, currently his boat has no motor – it’s being repaired. Repairs are also a chronic problem in Russian nature reserves. Here is another pretty picture of the Srednyaya Inlet, and a sign saying “Far Eastern Marine Reserve. Visiting Prohibited."

There are also a lot of really pretty and interesting flowers in the reserve. Here are a couple that I saw, although unfortunately, I don’t know what they’re called.

A Tour with Ivan

Ivan took me on a little 3-hour tour of the area around the Srednyaya Inlet on July 23, after the rich tourists left. Since Ivan has been working in the reserve for 4 years, and living at this station one month on-one month off during all that time, he knows quite a lot about the surrounding area and has done a lot of exploring. At the beginning of our hike, as we walked away from the coast, we saw literally fields of orange butterflies pollinating white flowers. The hike was beautiful.

Here is a picture of a filbert bush (that’s the nut, filbert). There are tons of these bushes all around the reserve, and they can be quite tall. Since Ivan and I weren’t on a path, in some places we just plowed right through the scratchy filbert bushes, which were sometimes taller than us. The nuts will come out of those little green pods in the fall. They are a good source of food for a lot of wild animals, including wild boar, a typical inhabitant of the Russian Far East.

Next: the little pool barely visible in this picture is a spot where wild boars go “swimming.” They dig a hole that fills with mud and water. In the evening they take a bath in this pool, getting coated with mud that then dries on their fur. This caked mud protects them from biting insects.

Here is a huge mushroom growing on a dead pine tree trunk! In Russian these mushrooms are called трутовые грибы. They are very hard, and nobody eats them (“Except maybe the Chinese,” says Ivan. “I don’t know about them; they eat everything.”) The mushrooms grow only on old or dead trees. This mushroom was probably about as big as my head.

Here Ivan is showing how big the leaves are on the Mongolian Oak (дуб монгольский). This is a common tree in the Russian Far East. (There is also regular oak here.) As you can see the leaves are much bigger than the leaves on a regular oak tree. However, all of the Mongolian oaks I have seen are smaller in size than regular oaks.

This is a pine tree. In Russian this tree is called mogil’naya sosna, literally, “sepulchral pine” (могильная сосна; Pinus funebris Kom.). It grows mostly at the tops of the hills surrounding the inlets on the coast, and in the rocks along the coast. Below is another picture of this tree growing along the top of the coast, right out of the rocks, it seems.

This is a huge hole that a wild boar dug in search of a badger. Wild boars are omnivores and really eat everything – from nuts to chipmunks to badgers and more. They are known to rip apart chipmunks’ burrows in the winter and eat the hibernating chipmunks right along with their supplies of nuts. Unfortunately I couldn’t capture the size of this hole, but I could have easily jumped in there and laid down. In this case the boar didn’t catch the badger, though – you can see the tunnels where he escaped.

Boars are pretty interesting animals. They can hang out in herds of 5-40 individuals, but they walk in a line single file. While a lot of animals, like deer, lie down in the evening (or day time) for a rest or to sleep in one spot, and then move on, boars take the time to build themselves a nest and return to it for a few days on end. They put a bunch of leaves in the middle and then build up dirt around the leaves. They’ll stay here for about 10 days, eating everything in the area and returning to the same spot to sleep – and then they move on. In Russian their nests are called a “гайно” (“gajno”) – above is a picture.

Here is one of the views of the coastline from Ivan’s and my hike. This spot was very steep and we plowed right through those filbert bush fields to walk through here. Ivan ordered no looking down :-). At these end of this little 5-minute trek along a cliff – continuation of the wild board theme! – Ivan showed me the leftovers of a wild boar that an Amur tiger killed here in the winter. (See picture below.)

I was amazed at how much the tiger left behind – the skin, fur, skull and more! For comparison, I got to see what wolves had left behind of a deer in Khingansky Zapovednik in June, and that was just a few tufts of fur. Anyway, a bunch of other animals had gotten to eat what they wanted of the boar since the winter, so there were no flies buzzing around the carcass or anything. Ivan estimates that this boar was about a meter tall and weighed 300 kilograms – whoa! (And they can be bigger than that.) Ivan gave me the two little tusks from this boar as a souvenir.

On our hike we also got a view of the islands out in the Peter the Great Bay that are also included in the eastern part of the Marine Reserve. Here is a picture of them that I took while exploring another time on my own. The reserve extends another 2 miles beyond these islands. Imagine, on the biggest of these islands there is a ranger station where someone is always living! Hopefully he doesn’t get restless there.

Here is a picture of some of my souvenirs from the marine reserve: two huge scallop shells, a whole sea urchin skeleton, wild boar tusks, and feathers from a mandarin duck and a blue thrush (also gifts from Ivan; these are both rare birds – Ivan found their feathers on one of his hikes – obviously a predator had killed them).

Science in the Marine Reserve

So back to science. Ira, Andrei and Volodya are studying ichthyoplankton (microscopic fish, for the lay person), juvenile fish, and adult fish inhabiting along the coast of the eastern part of the Marine Reserve, with the goal of simply determining the species composition in different types of coastal habitats in the eastern part of the reserve. Amazingly, these populations have never been studied in this part of the reserve, although Ira, Andrei and Volodya have done this research in the southern part of the reserve.

Many scientists, from the Institute of Marine Biology and other institutes, propose projects to the Marine Reserve for research. If the reserve is interested in the research, it invites the scientists to work in the reserve. So Ira, Andrei and Volodya on behalf of the Ichthyology Laboratory at the Institute of Marine Biology concluded a contract with the Marine Reserve to complete this work, since the reserve does not have enough staff with enough expertise to do this work itself. Later Andrei, Ira and Volodya were met by another Institute scientist, Dmitry. Although they wanted to do this work in the reserve every month from May through October, this is only their first trip out this year, and they think they will be lucky if they get to go out again in October. Things don’t always go as you plan in Russia!

As I said, these guys are looking at ichthyoplankton, juveniles and adult fish. The first two pictures here are from the ichthyoplankton part of Ira, Andrei and Volodya’s work. In the first picture they have lowered a big net to catch plankton into the ocean from the side of the cutter Vnimatel’nyi. The cutter then turns for 5 minutes, dragging the net in a big circle. Then they pull the net in and collect an ichthyoplankton sample from a bottle at the bottom of the net. Above Volodya and Dmitry are pulling the net in, and then Irina, Andrei and Dmitry are moving the sample into a marked bottle.

We took the ichthyoplankton samples in the evening two evenings in a row, at 24 different locations along the coast. Sometimes we got some great views while driving out to the sampling points – here are some pictures of the kekurs (that’s those rocks) just off the coast of the inlet next to the Srednyaya Inlet. These kekurs are called the “cormorant kekurs,” and you can see a huge number of cormorants perched atop them. Seals also like to sunbathe on the smaller rocks sticking out of the water near these kekurs, and we saw quite a few seals here (10 or so) during the daytime (but too far away to photograph).

In order to collect juvenile fish, the scientists drag a net (seine) through the tributaries (little streams, that is) flowing into the ocean’s inlets, and they also do a drag along the shore near these tributaries.

In the first picture Andrei and Volodya are preparing the seine for a drag through a little stream, and in the second Andrei, Volodya and Irina are sorting out the fish that they caught in the seine. (If the juveniles are a rare or unique species, they keep them in formaline and take them back to the Institute. If not, they let them go.)

Finally, there is work to figure out the species composition of adult fish in the Srednyaya Inlet. Andrei and Volodya set up traps and nets every evening in different habitats (e.g., in the grass, in the sand, near a cliff, etc.) in the inlet and checked them each morning for fish. (The adults that get trapped in the nets die.) Here Irina and Dmitry are sorting pulling fish out of the nets.

The types of fish that end up in the nets differs depending on the habitat on the bottom of the inlet (and also depending on the time of year, we can assume – but that’s not relevant right now). For the most part we caught a lot of sea perch (especially when they set the nets in the grass (seaweed, that is!)) and flounder. However, we caught a lot of sardines when the nets were set closer to cliffs. Andrei is setting the fish (perch) to be measured.

Finally, the nets have to be cleaned of all the seaweed that falls into them (you string up the net and pick out the seaweed), and then the nets get put away until the evening, when they are set again. Here Ivan and Volodya are putting a net that has been cleaned back into its bag.

By the way, to avoid killing fish for no reason, or, rather, just for the sake of science, the scientists try to eat most everything they catch! We had fried perch, flounder and redeye, as well as soup from fish (ukha), and a whole lot of shrimp. (Shrimp end up in these nets a lot.)

That’s about all! Here are three final pictures of the reserve. The first is the inlet next to Srednyaya Inlet, with a view of the Cormorant Kekurs. Next is a view of the Pacific from Srednyaya Inlet. And, of course, nothing would be complete without the requisite ocean sunset picture.

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