Zoological Studies

Vol. 62, 2023

(update: 2023.5.12)

Past, Present and Future of the Aral Sea - A Review of its Fauna and Flora before and during the Regression Crisis

Igor S. Plotnikov1, Nikolai V. Aladin1, Lubov V. Zhakova1, Jens Mossin3, and Jens T. Høeg3,*

1Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Universitetskaya nab. 1, St. Petersburg 199034, Russia. E-mail: Igor.Plotnikov@zin.ru (Plotnikov);  Nikolai.Aladin@zin.ru (Aladin); Lubov.Zhakova@zin.ru (Zhakova)
2Gentoftegade 76, DK-2820 Gentofte, Denmark. E-mail: jmobranch@gmail.com (Mossin); Lubov.Zhakova@zin.ru (Zhakova)
3Section of Marine Biology, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 4, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark. *Correspondence: E-mail: jthoeg@bio.ku.dk (Høeg). Phone: +45 28 75 12 47

(Received 21 July 2022 / Accepted 28 January 2023 / Published 12 May 2023)
Communicated by Benny K.K. Chan

We review the past, present and possible future of the Aral Sea system in context of the human caused regression crisis that resulted in the drying out of the larger part of this original brackish water sea. The results are put into the context of other threatened saline lakes and the general water crisis in the world due to overexploitation of water resources and climate change. We cover the geographic history and hydrology from the origin of the sea 17,000 years ago to the present. The original biota including animals, higher plants and algae are covered in full detail, and tracked through the regression crisis. We put special emphasis on fish and fisheries because of their economic importance for the surrounding populations. We also review the side effects of the regression in terms of human health and changes to the terrestrial environment and local climate. We explain the dramatic improvements to the fauna in the northern Small Aral Sea following the construction of dams to retain its waters and discuss future options to further improve this restored water basin. We contrast this with the progressing hypersalinization of the remnants of the southern Large Aral Sea, which faces conditions that will eventually render a “Dead Sea” condition hostile to all metazoan life. We end by highlighting the partial restoration of the Small Aral Sea as an example of how much restoration can be achieved for relatively little financial expense and in a short period, when good ideas, kind hearts and hard work operate together for the benefit of the environmentand our human society.

Key words: Global Change, Ecology, Saline lake, Fisheries, Irrigation, Agriculture.

Citation: Plotnikov IS, Aladin NV, Zhakova LV, Mossin J, Høeg JT. 2023. Past, present and future of the Aral Sea - A review of its fauna and flora before and during the regression crisis. Zool Stud 62:19. doi:10.6620/ZS.2023.62-19.