Baikal Cisco (Omul): Past and Future of the Main Baikal Fish

Baikal Cisco (Omul): Past and Future of the Main Baikal Fish

© Фото: Первый Байкальский
“Baikal Cisco was used as a bridge for crossing the river…”, or the sad story of fishing on Baikal...

The World Fishing Day has been celebrated on June 27 since 1985.

Water resources have been the main source of food for a large number of people since ancient times; this fact predetermined the improvement of fishing technology - it quickly went beyond the needs of a family. This occupation has remained a source of permanent professional income and the real passion of the planet’s population until today.

Correspondingly, we need to understand the necessity of careful attitude to the aquatic fauna of the planet, protection of its biosystem at all levels: governments, commercial enterprises, public associations, individuals. We do not depreciate environmental problems, but we cannot constantly attribute everything only to them. To a great extent, precisely the merciless extermination of fish and the results of non-professional fishing and conscious poaching made the disappearance of many species a reality.

A quintessential example of this is the fall in the number of the Baikal Cisco (also known as omul) in the Lake. And it is no coincidence that catching this fish in the lake has been prohibited by law since October 1, 2017.

The Origin of Fishing on Lake Baikal

Никто не может точно сказать, когда на берегах Байкала и впадающих в него многочисленных речек впервые появился человек с примитивным орудием лова. Но произошло это, скорее всего, еще в глубокой древности, что подтверждают археологи, обнаружившие в местах проживания людей (стоянках и городищах) гарпуны, разнообразные рыболовные крючки, грузила из камня, остатки рыбных отходов. Есть и «вторичные» доказательства в виде скульптурок рыб или их наскальных рисунков.

Когда в середине XVII века отряд Курбата Иванова добрался до Ольхона, у коренных его жителей, бурят, наряду с другими занятиями, уже существовали традиции рыболовства. Вместе с мясом и молоком рыба являлась распространенным продуктом питания, при этом, одновременно, и объектом почитания, так как ее очертания встречались в старинных священных изображениях.

Не гнушались рыбкой и «дети Прибайкальской тайги» – тунгусы (эвенки).

No one can say for sure when the first person with primitive fishing gear first came to fish on the coast of Baikal and the banks of numerous rivers flowing into the lake. However, most likely, this happened in ancient times, which was confirmed by archaeologists who discovered harpoons, various fishing hooks, weights made of stone, remains of fish waste in places where people lived (camping sites and fortifications). There are also “secondary” proofs in the form of sculptures or rock paintings representing fish.

When the detachment of Kurbat Ivanov reached Olkhon in the middle of XVII century, the native inhabitants - Buryats - already had fishing traditions, alongside with other occupations. Together with meat and milk, fish was common food stuff; at the same time it was an object of worship: its outlines can often be found in ancient sacred images.

The “children of the Baikal taiga” - the Tunguses (Evenki) – were also not above eating fish.

However, the mass fishing both on Baikal and in the valleys of its rivers appeared after the colonization of Eastern Siberia by the Russians.

“Fish” Toponymy of the Baikal Region

Probably the most convincing proof of the fact that the waters of the Baikal region have been characterized by the diversity of fish caught by locals since ancient times can be found... on the map of the region. There are Tungus, Buryat, and Russian “fish” names.

The most famous Baikal fish – cisco (omul) – was perpetuated by the Tunguses in the rivers of Turkukit and Turka  (“Turku” means “omul, omul place”), taimen - in the river and valley named Sirigli (Shirildy), which is translated as “taimen”, and grayling - in the river Neruchanda (“neruchan” means “grayling”). Lake Frolikha beloved by tourists has one more Tungus name – Davatchan (translated as “Frolikh char”). This name is used to designate a species of rare red fish - arctic char.

Of course, there are numerous Russian names: Nalimikha and Nalimovka rivers (named after burbot), Omulevaya and Sorozhya bays (cisco and roach, correspondingly), Osetrovo village (sturgeon) and Yazovka river (ide).

From Consumer to Commercial Fishing

More or less meaningful data about the state of the fishing industry on Baikal can be extracted from the sources of the second half of the 17th century that is associated with the active settlement of the Russian people there. Alongside with this, new fishing techniques and more sophisticated gears for this activity appeared.

All the travelers who visited Lake Baikal on their way told and wrote about the fish wealth beyond computation. Avvakum Petrov described a very vivid picture: “Local (Baikal) fish includes sturgeon, trout, sturgeon, cisco (omul), and whitefish, as well as many other genera... And the fish are very fat there: sturgeon and taimen have the largest amount of fat, so you cannot fry them in a pan: everything will be covered with fat.

Back then it was still quite difficult to do any harm to the fish stock. And fishing was of purely consumer nature, which was explained by the needs of a family; besides, the population number was extremely small, respectively, there was simply no need for large catches.

The situation had changed by the beginning of the 18th century: this was explained, first of all, by the active development of new lands and development of trade. In addition, peasants who competed with the fishermen showed interest in fishing. To resolve the situation, the question was raised to allocate fishing grounds on the coast of Baikal and in the spawning areas of rivers flowing therein to certain fish farmers.

But the situation was traditionally resolved in favor of the rich and powerful. In the 40-50s of the 18th century, the most profitable fishing grounds were given to the Count PI. Shuvalov whose workers were catching not only fish, but also seals - the fat and skin of the latter were especially valued in China.

The preemptive right to use the best fishing grounds was also granted to the treasury, major merchants and church institutions, such as monasteries.

However, at the turn of XVIII-XIX centuries fish resources were still rich. Fishing season mainly included autumn, when the greatest concentration of Baikal cisco was observed in the mouths of the rivers of Selenga, Barguzin, Verkhnyaya Angara, tributaries of the Chivyrkuisky Bay and others. According to the Irkutsk chronographer P.I. Pezhemsky, during this period, the shoals of omul moved to the river mouths with such noise that dogs in the fishing villages barked, and the fish literally formed a “living bridge” in the narrow channels.

Catching Baikal Cisco in the Great Lake and Its Tributaries

Baikal Cisco (Omul): Past and Future of the Main Baikal Fish

Lake Baikal could rightly be called a lake full of the richest fish reserves almost until the middle of XIX century. More than 50 species of fish included one third of commercial fish, but these were the species! Sturgeon, taimen, grayling, whitefish, cisco (omul)... The 19th century is a vivid illustration of the “human deeds” that were able to thoughtlessly broke the natural balance of the lake for the sake of profit. First of all, the harm was done to the population of sturgeon and omul: in fact, these formed the basis of all catches. Secondly, nobody was engaged in the reproduction of the shoals of Baikal Cisco; moreover, the fish was literally scooped out of the water during the spawning period. Thirdly, the fishermen massively used fishing gear with fine mesh. As a result, the young fishes caught in the nets were simply cast ashore for no purpose. Fourth, unrestricted catch of fish was associated with an extremely imperfect processing technology. The fish was processed as a reserve, because some of the products that were poorly salted with coarse salt simply did not reach the markets in saleable condition. And you can add many more examples of such mistakes.

Marvelous sketches “on the subject” are provided by the contemporaries interested in the “fish issue”. In particular, the Administrator of the Siberian Department of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society I.S. Selsky represented a horrific picture characteristic of the early 50s: when the Baikal Cisco entered the upper mouth of the Selenga in huge shoals, the riverbed was completely congested with fish. The Korginskaya crew was the first to go fishing, as determined by drawing lots; when they cast out the nets, they caught so much fish that the double number of workers could barely pull out the catch.  This first catch brought 200 barrels of fish. The second crew that went fishing at the same place of the upper mouth also caught 150 barrels at once; the third catch brought another 100 barrels. The number of fish was so great that time that the fish industry workers lacked both barrels and salt; so huge heaps of fish were thrown ashore. The young fishes who were asleep were either thrown into the water or burned, some of these were buried in the ground or left to rot in the open air...

The numbers of Selenginsky and Barguzinsky species of Baikal Cisco showed a sharp drop already in the first quarter of XIX century.

The expected result is the expansion of the fishing area of ​​omul. In XVIII century, there was no actual “fish” industry, that is, the mass catch of omul in Baikal itself. In XIX century, the fishermen “opened” the gates of Baikal, and in the early 60s, the earnings from the catch of Baikal Cisco in the lake was already growing from 1 to 2 million roubles.

Fishing season was held twice a year - in summer and autumn. The summer one started at the end of May and was aimed at Baikal; it ended, as a rule, in mid-July. They caught only omul, sometimes pulling out nets weighing up to 100 poods (1 pood is approximately 16 kg) of fish during one draught. The main fishing season was already held in Verkhnyaya Angara closer to the autumn, and it coincided with the spawning period of omul.


The main fishing gear was fishing net; its dimensions were constantly increasing. The methods of fishing were also improved, and the drift net method for catching Baikal Cisco has been actively used in the open waters of the lake since 1960s. This method of fishing is carried out with special fishing vessels, drifting downstream and with the wind along with the use of a very long drifting net: the fish does not see its canvas an obstacle, therefore, it draws the mesh tight, becomes entangled dead, with no chance of escape. The use of this innovation increased the number of already uncontrolled catch and, above all, had a serious drawback: damage done to omul when the fish got into the net and was pulled out of it. Therefore, senseless destruction of Baikal Cisco stock also took place here.

In the mid-1980s, the decline in the fishing of Baikal Cisco was expressed both in a decrease in the number of catch and decrease in prices. In 1950s the residents of Irkutsk could buy omul on the market at a price from 2 to 5 kopecks a piece, in late 1970s the price was already 5–10 kopecks, and in the 80s the price reached 18 kopecks a piece. In order to help you understand the level of prices, we will specify that one was able to have a dinner with alcohol in a decent tavern for 30-50 kopecks.

In the late 19th – early 20th centuries the demand for Baikal Cisco increased, when the possibility of its transportation to the centre of the empire was provided by the Trans-Siberian railway. The consequence was another irrational, predatory growth of catch with the monopoly of large fishing companies.

Baikal River Police

Of course, it cannot be considered that the local authorities, the public and even fish farmers themselves did not understand the severity of the situation. Certain measures were repeatedly taken to regulate the fishing industry and preserve the population of Baikal Cisco both in Baikal itself and in its spawning rivers - Selenga, Verkhnyaya Angara, Kichera…In 1912 they even prepared a project for establishing a special Baikal river police.

As early as 1816 the regional administration established a number of fishing regulations by the document titled “Regulation on the Catch of Omul in the Selenga River ”, but they mostly defended not omul, but the major fisheries that caught it - against the actions of unorganized single peasants who fished with primitive gears. But it is very important that there was such a preventive measure as ban on fishing in the designated area of ​​the Selenga River during spawning periods.

Then regulations began to come up with amazing regularity: in 1872, 1882, 1900, 1905, 1908. But, unfortunately, they had little in common with each other and were massively violated everywhere. As a matter of practice, it turned out that different rules “worked” in different parts of the same Baikal. There was a legalized understanding of restrictions on the locations and times of catching omul during the mass migration periods, but the periods of prohibition did not coincide in different documents. However, undoubtedly, the biggest problem was the fact that the central authorities did not understand the real complexity of the situation with fish resources and fishing on Lake Baikal.

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