Birds conservation supporting local fish-farm in Armenia
Armash Wetlands belong to fish-farm and overlap with public hunting lands. Due to that, the waterbirds face two major threats: uncontrolled shooting and destruction of edge habitats. Development of birdwatching in the area created an opportunity of compensation for the lost yield of fish and in several years changed the attitude of the fish-farm’s management making the wildlife conservation a priority.
Important bird area on the fish-farm
The Important Bird Area (IBA) “Armash” is located in Ararat Plain at elevations 781-794 m above sea level, and represents the largest carp-farm in Armenia, which consists of 29 earth ponds surrounded by saltwort semidesert with total cover of 1,514 ha. The site was last assessed as IBA by BirdLife International in 2013. The fish-ponds are divided between several private owners. The farm is fed by two major sources of water: canal that brings water from Araks River and artesian wells. The vegetation cover differs in various areas: the wetlands are dominated by Fragmites, Typha, and Carex, the semidesert areas host Chenopodium, Lepidium, Salsola, Alhagi, and Zygophyllum. Some of ponds here have not been used over a decade and were transferred into seasonal brackish wetlands.
Mosaic structure of a fish-pond
In total, there are 234 species of birds recorded here, among those, 93 species are breeding and 141 species are migrating through the area or are wintering here. The species observed here include globally threatened White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala (EN), Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirhostris (VU), Common Pochard Aythya ferina (VU), Ferruginous Pochard Aythya nyroca (NT), Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus (NT), Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa (NT), Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur (EN), as well as threatened at National level White-tailed Lapwing Vanellus leucurus (VU), Savii's Warbler Locustella luscinioides (VU), Greylag Goose Anser anser (VU), Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrines (VU), and others. The area becomes gradually colonized by the Spur-winged Lapwing Vanellus spinosus and it is the only known breeding place in Armenia for White-headed Duck, White-tailed Lapwing, and Kentish Plover. The site is primarily important for hosting the congregations of wide variety of waterbirds, including at least 20% of the population of Armenian Gull Larus armenicus.
Globally threatened White-headed Duck
Armash area has a primary objective as a fish-farm. It potentially creates a conflict between the farm management purposes and conservation priorities, as from one side the fish-eating species are influencing the yield, provoking owners to shoot those, and from another side, the intensive production of fish requires less mosaic structure of the ponds, and such requirement leads in decreasing of the shoreline vegetation and birds' habitats.
Significant part of the area (about 2,020 ha) is included in the public hunting lands. It was causing continuous presence of hunters, who, under conditions of poor control, have been exceeding the quotas on allowed game birds, and also were poaching on threatened species of Ducks, Waders, Crakes, and Herons. In addition, the hunting in this area causes lead pollution from bullets, which is a well-known threat for wetlands and waterbirds.
The most important step in conservation of Armash IBA and protection of birds is its official recognition as an Emerald Site with further development of management plan for the area. The management plan should consider combination of the interests of farms' owners and conservation priorities. Such management plan should take into account a mitigation of the listed threats and development of a business models, where birdwatching can be integrated into fish production, compensating the losses of yield caused by fish-eating waterbirds and replacing the potential income from hunters.
Birdwatching replacing bird hunting
Since 2006 our efforts were dedicated to development of birdwatching in the Armash wetlands. The tourists were required to pay an entrance fee, which was aimed at compensation of the loss of income from the yield. For that, the owners of Armash fish-farm were requested to allocate a part of the fish-farm for birding, which means stop of shooting of fish-eating birds, prohibiting of the hunters’ entrance, stop clearing of the shoreline from the reed, and leaving the brackish marshes as they are. Slow but stable growth of the number of tourists assures the management of Armash fish-farm that the model can work. Since 2013 the number of tourists started growing rapidly, which increased sustainability of the model. Thus, even in the years of 2020-2021, when due to COVID-19 pandemics and significant decline of tourists, the management of the fish-farm continued staying committed to the conservation purposes.
Nationally protected Black-winged Stilt
The initiative was led by several conservation scientists, who, in 2014 founded the BirdLinks Armenia NGO. The initiative was self-financing, as the royalty, which was obtained from the guided birding tours served as a compensation for the loss of yield and replaced potential fee which could be obtained from the hunters.
Decrease of hunting activity and increase of mosaic structure of the habitats in the area supported in increase of numbers of the bird species, which have been breeding within the so-called “bird conservation zone”. For example, number of White-headed Ducks increased from four to 15 breeding pairs, number of Black-winged Stilts increased from about 20 to over 80 pairs.
One of the most important points here is that Armash fish-farm continues growing fishes in this “bird conservation zone”. Thus, the model becomes mutually beneficial for the fish-farm management and the wildlife. The case teaches that the right approach, which is based on the comprehensive analysis and consistent implementation, can support conservation even in the developing market, like in Armenia.
The perspectives of Armash Wetlands development include several directions:
- Official recognition of the area as an Emerald Site.
- Designation of the area as a Ramsar Site.
- Designation of the area as AEWA priority site.
- Development of the integrated management plan, which will consider priorities of the area as a site of international conservation concern and interests of the fish-farm management.
- Complete excluding of the area from the list of Public Hunting Lands.
- Cleaning of the surroundings from the waste and solving the municipal waste management issue.
- Development of a visitor centre at Armash wetlands.
- Further promotion of the birdwatching and other wildlife tourism in the area for global and national markets.
- Assistance in development of hospitality infrastructure in the surrounding villages.
- Expansion of the model to the other fish-farms.
Thus, the area will receive international protection umbrella and it will obtain a financial sustainability, satisfying all the stakeholders: at the business and conservation sides.
Dr. Karen Aghababyan
BirdLinks Armenia NGO