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Clouds roll over Lake Skadar, the largest freshwater body in southern Europe. Photo: Darko Vuckovic
The engine clattered to a stop and we were adrift in the lake, the waves pushing our speedboat towards the darkness of open water. It was after midnight.
“Fishnets,” groaned the Albanian ranger. “It’ll be tricky to get them off the propeller.”
He rummaged in the boat but all he could find was a small razor.
After more than an hour perched on a ledge over the motor, painstakingly slicing the net from the blades, he finally cut us free. Back in the boat, water dripped from his uniform and sweat from his face.
“Something like this happens almost every night,” he said, then revved the engine to continue our patrol towards a canalof the Moraca river.
From mid-March to mid-May, fishing is banned on Lake Skadar, a vast freshwater system straddling the borders of Albania and Montenegro. You wouldn’t know it though, judging by all the nets.
A little later, the other ranger on board, a Macedonian game warden, battled the wind as he hauled out a fishnet around 100 metres long. It was flapping with a few trapped carp. Some weighed as much as three kilograms.
In the canal of the Moraca river, we found an even longer net with around 20 carp stuck in the mesh. Set free, their scales gleamed in the moonlight as they slipped back in the water – a lucky escape from people too greedy to leave them alone even during spawning season.
“I don’t know if we should be happy or worried because so few fish were caught in the net,” the Montenegrin ranger said.
Scientists warn that there are far fewer fish in the lake than there used to be – and numbers are falling every year. They blame poachers for the decline.
Employed to go on joint night patrols by thepublic company that manages Montenegro’s national parks,the two rangers make quite a pair. They declined to be identified by name.
One, from the Albanian border town of Ostros on the southeast tip of Lake Skadar, is tall, muscular and a man of few words. The other is from the Montenegrin village of Bijelo Polje, northeast of the lake. He’s ropey, tough and talkative.
Known for being incorruptible, the two take a zero-tolerance approach to poaching during spawning season. When it comes to protecting the waterways, they have the best results of any rangers.
Paid little to brave the cold nights, and in constant danger of being attacked by jumpy poachers, they risk their lives because they see the work as essential. They said they’d patrol for free if they had to.
“The whole of Montenegro could live from this lake and its fish, but it’s tragic when we see what people – locals in the first place – are doing with it,” the Montenegrin said.
There are many challenges in safeguarding the lake, they said. For one thing, poachers who use electricity, spears, nets and other illegal means of fishing, somehow get wind of exactly when they’re coming.
Another problem is their employee’s tight finances. Sometimes they don’t even have enough oil for their speedboats.
But they remain committed. Out of love for the lake, they go the extra mile to protect it. They explained how hard it is to support their families on a ranger’s salary – but somehow they get by. Like most Montenegrins and Albanians, they’re not quite sure how. They just do.
The Montenegrin ranger said he was driven by the thought of leaving Lake Skadar in good enough condition for his children to enjoy its beauty, “not to despair of its ruin”.
“When I was a kid and the lake flooded our fields, the other kids and I would play with the carp in the shallows,” he said. “It was full of them. Now I guess it’s totally different.“
Ivan Cadjenovic is a Montenegrin journalist who writes about society and education. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, he is investigating ecological issues.