“Baikal Expedition”: How Scientists Save Baikal from Spirogyra
September, 22

“Baikal Expedition”: How Scientists Save Baikal from Spirogyra

The summer period of the fifth year of work of the “Baikal Expedition” public scientific project is coming to an end. Thanks to this social movement, as well as the union of social activists and scientists, it was possible to make harmful spirogyra alga well-known around the world.

Now it is no secret for anyone that because of the unsatisfactory work of treatment plants the blue-green algae have spread all over Lake Baikal, partially replacing the indigenous aquatic species. We asked Marina Rikhvanova, the coordinator of the “Baikal Expedition”, about every detail of the situation developing around the expansion of spirogyra, about the successes that have been achieved in the fight against it and the things we should expect from this fight in the future.

Key to Baikal: Where and when did it all start?

Marina Rikhvanova: A woman called to the office of the then “Baikal Ecological Wave” in early autumn of 2011. As it turned out later, she graduated from the biological faculty of the ISU in Irkutsk, but she went to live in Moscow long ago and only returned to her native places in summer visiting her parents in Maksimikha. She said that something strange was happening. Earlier the bank of the Maksimikha River and the place where it flows into Lake Baikal had clear water and rocky bottom. Then she noticed that the bottom got blurry, covered with a thick layer of silt. We arrived at Barguzinsky Bay in November and discovered an outbreak of algae there. We talked with the locals, and it turned out that this situation had been developing gradually over the last ten years. Fishermen even had to change the traditional fishing methods, as the nets got jammed with algae. They thought that it was due to the Baikal Pulp-and-paper Plant or even that the algae were brought from the delta of Selenga. It was difficult to find the source of its expansion.

KTB: How was the “Baikal Expedition” formed and what were the first steps made by it?

MR: At first we met the representatives of the “World around Us” fund at the Novosibirsk “Siberian Health” corporation. They allocated funds for the first expedition that was conducted in 2012. Then we agreed with the staff of the ISU – the hydrogeologist Grigorii Shpeer and the biologist Galina Kabanova - to drive along the coast of Southern Baikal and take samples for analysis. We passed more than 30 points (Maksimikha, Turka, Baikalsk, Slyudyanka): we made our way along the coast, spoke with locals, asked them to lend us boats. In general, we conducted a screening and found out that the mass development of the algae feeding on inorganic matter without photosynthesis was observed in places with a high concentration of phosphates in water. An entire complex of different types of algae characteristic of a high degree of organic pollution was discovered.

KTB: Did you make this information public? Was there any reaction in the society?

MR: On the basis of the data collected at the end of 2012 we made a report at the Public Council under the Government of Irkutsk Oblast. But I was criticized at the council after the meeting - they said that this could not be true; they doubted the reliability of our methods. But later everything was confirmed. First I found an article written by the scientists from the Limnological Institute published in the same year 2012. It stated that there had already been a change in biogeocenosis at the bottom of Lake Baikal - indigenous species of Baikal algae were replaced by alien algae, there pollution - in particular, with spirogyra - was high. This was a confirmation of our investigations, but it was published in the scientific literature and was not widely discussed in public.

Besides, when scientists-limnologists conducted expeditions on their ship, they found a lot of similar points throughout Baikal up to Severobaikalsk. The data of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage were also published and said that the waste treatment facilities had killed the bacterial flora. As you looked at the photographs, it became clear that the blue-green algae proliferated along the edges of waste discharge. On the Tyia River it could be clearly seen that one bank had clean water and the other, adjacent to the discharges, was all green with algae. The waste treatment plants did not work, all inorganic substances got into water, and the algae grew on it.

KTB: What caused the appearance of spirogyra, and why did this happen nowadays?

MR: Tourism is rapidly developing, tourist centres are being built, the waste flows into rivers and directly into Lake Baikal. For example, this happened in Maksimikha: they even had money were allocated for building treatment facilities there, they were even built, but they were built in a wrong way and were of no use. The Prosecutor’s Office conducted a check there, but, as far as I know, nobody was punished.

KTB: Is waste a source of phosphates in Lake Baikal?

“Baikal Expedition”: How Scientists Save Baikal from SpirogyraMR: The main substances helping these algae to grow are phosphates and nitrogen compounds. These are the components of synthetic detergents, in other words - detergent powders. It is very difficult to get rid of phosphates even with the help treatment plants. Therefore, there are several ways to solve it in different countries having this problem since 1950s. Of course, this way is the construction of treatment plants or even a complete ban on discharges to lakes, like in the US on Tahoe Lake - the water is sold to neighboring states for technical needs. But the main solution is to completely abandon using phosphate-containing detergents. There are many detergent powders having phosphates replaced with other environmentally safe components.

KTB: You mean your proposal is to ban the use of these detergents at Lake Baikal?

MR: Yes. First, they can be not produced at all, secondly, people can avoid using it at Lake Baikal. The choice of detergents is huge, and there are alternative options in any price range. Sometimes people ask: “please give us a list of the things we shouldn’t buy”, but the list is large, it’s easier just to read the detergent’s composition yourself. There are cases when the label says that the powder is environmentally friendly, but the composition contains phosphate. Manufacturers have an alternative understanding of environmental friendliness...

In 2016 we joined forces with En + group and began developing various ways to fight eutrophication and try to use products made of spirogyra.

There are the following ways:

1. Environmental education. Eradication of the causes of pollution (the use of phosphates, soil water).

2. Investigation of the methods for the use spirogyra and involvement of the population in these processes.

3. The key moment in this work is cooperation with local administrations, residents of settlements, schoolchildren from both cities of Irkutsk Oblast and locals.

 A number of interesting investigations on the use of spirogyra at farms has been conducted by the end of 2016.

KTB: You offer removing the biomass in a physical way. Could you describe it in more detail?

MR: I do not know how to take the algae away from the bottom. But it is very easy to remove them from the coast. You should come there in the spring when the level of Lake Baikal is low and the mass is dry. It is easy to collect the mass by rakes and shovels - we take out about two hundred kilos from the Barguzinsky Bay each year. A part of these algae are spent on our experiments. We have conducted experiments concerning the use of this biomass as fertilizers in several schools. Farmers in Severobaikalsk and Irkutsk tried using it for the production of biocompost by Californian worms. Worms eat the algae well and product high-quality fertilizers. Fertilizers can be produced and sold.

KTB: They say you have an unusual laboratory factory?

MR: Yes, we have invented a way of producing designer’s paper jointly with Irkutsk designers. It is a mixture of waste paper with algae, a mass serving for producing sheets, frames for photographs, pouring papier-mâché into some shape, for example, fridge magnets. These technologies are being worked out at the moment. If people living in places where spirogyra expands know how to handle it, they can go, collect it and produce things for sale, create their own small souvenir-producing business. Everything is very easy, no expensive technologies are required.

KTB: How do local people treat your activities?

MR: In different ways. Some think that nothing dangerous has happened and everything will pass by itself. But some people start to think it over. Actually, living on the coast and admitting that usual discharge can cause such a serious problem is psychologically difficult. We need treatment plants, this is not being solved in any way, because we need coordinated actions. The only place with normal waste treatment plants is Baikalsk, but they were built there under the program of reorientation of the Baikal Pulp-and-paper Plant, about five hundred million were invested in it. We need special programs for inhabited settlements. This is very difficult, because we lack specialists who understand this at the local municipal level. There is no money for the project itself.

KTB: Do you have any strategy: what will you do tomorrow, next month, next year?

MR: We need to work in several directions, and we are trying to do our best in these fields. One direction is to monitor what is happening to Lake Baikal. We cooperate with various scientific organizations, for example, this year we worked with the Department of Hydrobiology of the Moscow State University and with the Centre of Drinking Water. These research data will be publicly available. Another direction is the work with local residents. We need a social movement so that the community living on the coast of Lake Baikal could understand what is happening: the problem has been developing for more than ten years by now, and no one is doing anything, because no one understands anything. This year we paid special attention to this, we talked to people – the things they think about, the things they offer. Now people treat this in a peculiar way: “we do not understand anything about this, but we have the state, we have experts who must solve all this. New social relations should be built, so that people can communicate, cooperate, offer their solutions and implement them.

In addition, we expand partnerships with different projects: for example, the “New Generation School” project of En + group, development of entrepreneurship, involvement of schoolchildren, as well as environmental education.

This year corporate volunteers found the algae thrown ashore and cleaned the coast from it within the framework of the key campaign of the main Russian eco-marathon of En + titled “360 Minutes”. This led us to the idea that we can work with volunteers in this direction.

In addition, the project of public monitoring of the coast is very important for us, when any local resident, tourist, guest can take a photo of the bottom and the coast and upload it to the web site: thus we can get a general picture of the coast and compare its state with earlier photos as the time passes, because the coast is very large, and it is impossible to go around it even by a big team.

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