Land of epic poetry: Koitajoki Watershed restoration

The Koitajoki watershed in southeast Finland is comprised of a network of peatlands, lakes, rivers and boreal forests. The area is home to threatened species including whitefish, golden eagle, and the world’s only landlocked salmon. The Koitajoki plays a central role in the cultural history of the Karelian region, and Finland more widely, as the origin area of the Kalevala oral poetry tradition, which forms Finland’s founding myth and corpus of folklore. The distinct method of seining for fish practiced in the area is part of a cultural complex deemed worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status. This hugely important area is threatened by human activities such as building dams, mining, and draining peatlands. Large-scale catchment restoration work will re-establish connectivity through creation of aquatic and forest corridors, and up to 1000 hectares of boreal peatlands will be restored.

The Koitajoki River Basin

Koitajoki is an iconic Finnish-Russian cross-border river system of huge cultural and ecological importance. The Koitajoki river emerges in North Karelia, Finland, and flows back and forth between Russian Karelia and Finnish Karelia, before emptying into the Pielisjoki River. The Koitajoki catchment is made up of a mosaic of peatland habitats, including lakes, rivers, mires, wetlands, old-growth forest and economic forest areas. Of these habitats, mires and wetlands, old-growth boreal forest, and various areas of river and lake are of particularly high biodiversity value, acting as vital repositories of carbon and places of refuge for endangered species. They are also part of major bird flyways, providing nesting and stop-over locations.

Project context and opportunity

The river system has suffered significant damage from the installation of three hydroelectric power plants which divert part of the course of the lower river, and from extensive ditching and draining of peatlands in the catchment for economic forestry and industrial use. This infrastructure has blocked the migration and spawning routes of lake-bound Atlantic salmon. Industrial logging has affected the basin’s boreal forests, causing mercury contamination. Gold and peat mining operations in the catchment area are another source of disturbance, fragmentation and degradation.

To date, no basin-wide restoration work has been carried out, although partial and piloting actions have taken place in the past, for example small-scale restoration of rapids, managed boreal forest burns and minor peatland restoration on state lands.

Local communities are receptive to the restoration of the area and the habitat still contains intact old-growth boreal forest areas, mires and wetlands, and more pristine stretches of river and lake. These provide refuge to many species and despite degradation retain their high biodiversity value.

What the project will do

The project aims to restore a number of key features of the Koitajoki watershed to ecological health. By the end of the project, created wetlands, ecological corridors and restored peatland marsh mires will protect waters downstream and enhance biodiversity, restoring carbon and water cycles. Webs of life will begin to re-establish what industrial land use has removed – the interconnected aquatic and terrestrial matrix of Koitajoki. Restored hydrological interconnectivity will benefit whitefish, trout, grayling and land-locked Atlantic salmon, addressing issues that have affected the basin for over 70 years. Restoration and increased conservation around terrestrial ‘core areas’ will be established as a model for the restoration of similar areas in the boreal forest suffering from ecological fragmentation.

To achieve this, the project will:

  • Conduct ecological surveys to ensure restoration efforts are targeted.
  • Restore peatland habitats, through re-wetting drained marshes.
  • Restore forest ecosystems by increasing decaying timber and removing invasive species.
  • Restore rivers, lakes and streams through adding gravel to spawning grounds, placing timber, rocks and stones in waterways, and dredging if necessary.
  • Establish ecological corridors of boreal forest.
  • Remove barriers to fish migration, and produce the initial dialogues that could enable dam removal in the future.
  • Hire local teams and operators to conduct the restoration activities, injecting funding into village economies.
  • Engage with local communities to move them towards a new, sustainable, economic model.

Project Partners

Snowchange Cooperative

Quick Facts

Project lead:

Snowchange Cooperative

Project location:

Koitajoki River Basin, Finland

Country:

Finland

Landscape size:

31,000 ha

Key habitats:

Peatlands, rivers, lakes, small streams, taiga boreal forest areas

Focal species:

Lake bound Atlantic salmon, brown trout, grayling, whitefish, golden eagle, rock ptarmigan, Lobaria pulmonaria (a large epiphytic lichen), Sphagnum aongstroemii, northern pintail, wood sandpiper

Project Website

Project Gallery

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