Activity 12 : Data Collection

This activity was planned to focus on setting up a sustainable program for European Otter monitoring on the Valbona River, by working with local youth volunteers. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid situation made it impossible to responsibly work with large groups of students. We did find workarounds however to accomplish the ultimate goal of the activity: to teach local people how to have a long term strategy to create a new and strong tactics, using documented proof to affect national decision making.

The overall logic of the project is presented in this online ‘story map’ (a technique developed during Activity 5!) This is being used to publicize the initiative online and create interest in other communities for pursuing similar projects.

A simplified methodology was created by working with project partners at the Albanian environmental NGO PPNEA. As noted, otter monitoring requires visiting sites during either spring or autumn, when water levels are low and traces have not been washed away by either the river or high rainfall. The methodology has been shared with the other communities in the coalition created during Activity 13 : Conference.

We first collected data in September 2020, as part of “Bioblitz” activity described in the video produced as part of Activity 7. We were joined by 3 members of PPNEA staff specializing in mammals and education.

Data was collected from 7 sites, above and below hydropower construction, for a 35km stretch from the upper reaches of Valbona river within the national park, to Fierza where the river joins the Drin.

Although clear signs of otters were present in 5 of 7 sites, interestingly, no signs of Otters were found above the intake of the hydropower in Maskollata. The data was shared with PPNEA to be entered in national databanks.

In July 2021, we were approved to expand the scope of the activity, and include a special session on ‘Citizen Science’ lead by a specialist, during the Students for Rivers Camp / Affected Communities Conference (Activity 13). During this inspiring workshop, we thought more about both the kinds of monitoring we could do, as well as what to do with the data collected, in order to influence policy makers. We brought together Albanian university students participating in the camp with people from affected communities attending the conference. Once again, PPNEA staff were present.

Although Otters, as head of the food chain, are an excellent indicator of overall river health, we realized that we can actually also quite easily monitor water quality – aka: the basis of river health, as well as fish populations. Fish are interesting as they are both directly dependent of river morphology but also provide most the important food source for the Otters.

In order to achieve this, we will begin working with Earthwatch, Drinkable Rivers and PPNEA staff from the University of Tirana!

We also realized that in order to reliably maintain ongoing data collection, long-term, it is actually better to create a dedicated but small core team of volunteers able to do regular monitoring in strategic locations near their homes on the river. Earthwatch recommends a team of 5 monitors. For this reason, we developed a “Volunteer Memo of Understanding” and have been working directly with already proven dedicated activists with a deep concern for the river, explaining how participating in monitoring will over time strengthen arguments for river protection. Although in the future it will be nice to facilitate the participation of students, young people who both graduate quickly and require costly transport are unlikely to form the base of a sustainable, long-term monitoring project.

In October 2021, volunteers again visited the 7 data collection sites, once more recording the presence of Otters, and sharing the data with PPNEA.