The enormous potential for biotic survey in the Russian Far East has been demonstrated by our successful efforts in the Kuril Archipelago. We now propose to put the Kuril work into the broader context of a long-term, large-scale survey and inventory that encompasses all of Okhotskia, here defined as the landmasses that surround and enclose the Sea of Okhotsk: (1) the Kuril Islands in the southeast (now being surveyed as Phase 1), (2) Sakhalin Island in the west (Phase 2, this proposal), (3) the Okhotsk coast of southeastern Siberia in the north (Phase 3, a future proposal), and (4) Kamchatka in the northeast (Phase 4, a future proposal). Okhotskia is one of the most biologically diverse yet poorly known regions within the Holarctic Realm. At the same time, compared to most other regions of comparable size in boreal regions around the world, its biota is relatively undisturbed. For political reasons, but also because of its remoteness and severe climate, all but a few Russian biologists have ignored this region. Information about the plants and animals of Okhotskia is largely unknown outside Russia and what little is available is published in Russian and thus inaccessible to most students and scientists. Although we now have large, diverse, and exceptionally well-documented collections from the Kuril Islands, natural history collections from the remaining parts of Okhotskia are small, relatively poorly documented, and confined primarily to a few Russian and Japanese institutions.

A detailed biotic survey and inventory of the Russian island of Sakhalin, as Phase 2 of this expanded effort, is a logical and much needed extension to our work in the Kuril Archipelago. As one of four primary source biotas for colonization of the Kuril Islands—the others being Hokkaido, Kamchatka, and the Asian mainland—Sakhalin is by far the least known biologically and in the greatest danger of over-exploitation. Stretching 948 km from north to south, with a maximum width of 160 km and covering an area of 76,400 square km (Vysokov, 1996), Sakhalin is nearly five times larger than all 56 islands of the Kurils put together. The island is narrowly separated from the northern tip of Hokkaido by the La Perouse Strait, only 43 km wide, and from the Asian continent by the Tatar Strait, only 7.5 km wide at its narrowest point. Thus, to some unknown extent, Sakhalin forms a natural filter or barrier to dispersal of continental forms to the Kuril Archipelago.

Habitats on Sakhalin are highly diverse (Anonymous, 1994). The island is washed by the warm Sea of Japan on its western and southwestern margins and by the cold Sea of Okhotsk in the north and east. The coastline is gently indented offering little in the way of natural harbors—the largest gulfs are Aniva on the southern end and Terpeniya on the mid-western margin. The Schmidt, Terpeniya, Tonino-Anivsky, and Krilyonsky peninsulas protrude abruptly into the sea. The northern quarter of the island is dominated by a swampy lowland plain, but most of the remaining land is mountainous. Two primary mountain ranges, the Western and Eastern Sakhalin Mountains, separated by the Tym-Poronaiskaya Valley, stretch from north to south. The eastern mountain range contains the highest peak on the island, Mount Lopatin, rising to 1,609 m; the second highest peak, Mount Onor, at 1,327 m, dominates the western mountain range. Two smaller mountain ranges, the Susunaisk and Tonino-Anivsky mountains are situated at the southern end of the island. The entire island is cut by a dense network of rivers and streams. The largest rivers are the Tym and Poronai, which flow north and south, respectively, along the floor of the Tym-Poronaiskaya Valley, draining the interior slopes of the eastern and western mountain ranges. Lakes are everywhere: the largest (e.g., Baykal, Piltun, and Nabilskiy in the north, and Tunaycha, Vavayskoye, and Busse in the far south) are shallow marshy lagoons most commonly found along the coast.

Only slightly less foreboding than the Kurils, Sakhalin has been described as “hell on earth” (Chekhov, 1895; Doroshevich, 1903). “Cold winds, impenetrable fog, treacherous tides, earthquakes, and rugged coastal cliffs combine to produce a natural environment inhospitable to man. . . . Any visitor to Sakhalin will testify to the virulent swarms of gnats, mosquitoes, and horse flies that make the warm humid months an ordeal only slightly less trying than the winter” (Stephan, 1971: v, 9). The climate is severe, characterized by raw windy winters and humid summers plagued by thick fog. The mean temperatures in January range from -6ºC in the south to -22ºC in the north, while those in August range from 18ºC to 10ºC, respectively. The annual precipitation reaches 120 cm over mountainous areas and about 60 cm over the lowlands (Zemtsova, 1968). Typhoons from the southwest are common in late summer and autumn.

The vegetation ranges from tundra and stunted forests of birch and willow in the far north to a dense mix of coniferous and deciduous forests in the central and southern parts of the island (Stephan, 1971). Ash, oak, maple, spruce, and fir predominate, but these species are replaced on the higher mountain slopes by stone birch (Betula ermanii) and pine (Pinus pumila). A mixture of northern and southern floral elements is characteristic of the southwestern part of the island: coniferous species are found alongside oak, Sakhalin cork (Phellodendron sachalinense), and Japanese walnut (Juglans ailanthifolia) (Anonymous, 1994). Woody vines (e.g., Actinidia, Shisandra, and wild grape) are abundant. Thickets of Kuril bamboo are widespread everywhere except in the north.

Very little published information can be found on the fauna of Sakhalin; general statements about the larger mammals, marine birds, and commercially important invertebrates (e.g., king crab) and fishes (herring, salmon, and cod) are the only exceptions (Stephan, 1971; Anonymous, 1994). Brown bear, fox, sable, wild reindeer, hare, squirrels, chipmunks, etc., inhabit the forests. Rare animals such as Sakhalin musk deer, mandarin duck, mountain snipe, osprey, golden eagle, and marbled murrelet are still found in the ancient old-growth forests of the Pursh-Pursh and Vengeri river valleys. Marine bird colonies along the coastal margins are abundant, especially on the Terpeniya Cape and on Tyuleny and Moneron islands. Some of the largest rookeries of fur seal and sea lions left in the world are situated on Tyuleny Island. Salmon, herring, cod, pacific saury (Cololabis saira), navaga (Eleginus navaga), halibut, walleye pollock, and other fish species, as well as crab, shrimp, and squid, provide the basis for the principal economic activity along the coasts.

Although the general outlines of the fauna and flora of Sakhalin can be summarized, more detailed information is nonexistent or unpublished; what little is published is confined to the Russian and, to a much lesser extent, the Japanese scientific literature (Stephan, 1971). Little systematic collecting has ever been done, and since the close of World War II, no non-Soviet or Russian biologists have done any work of significance (Y. N. Zhuravlev, pers. comm., 6 August 1999). With the exception of a few Russian collections (those of the various institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, Magadan, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) and even fewer Japanese collections (those of the faculties of Agriculture and Fisheries, Hokkaido University; the National Science Museum, Tokyo; and the University Museum, University of Tokyo), museum samples of plants and animals originating from Sakhalin are unavailable and frozen tissues are non-existent. The biota is a mix of Asian, Japanese, and endemic species, but the extent to which it differs from that of the mainland and of Hokkaido, and its role in the colonization of the Kurils, is unknown. The southernmost end of the island has been rather heavily impacted since the close of World War II by the construction of Russian military installations and more recently by civilian expansion of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (the largest town and administrative center of the region) but, otherwise, the island remains relatively undisturbed.

Although most probably visited by the Chinese in ancient times, Russians and Japanese reached the island at about the same time in the mid-seventeenth century, but neither side took a serious interest in exercising sovereignty until after 1785. During the 160 years from 1785 to 1945, Sakhalin has been a constant source of friction and occasionally a battleground between these two nations (Roberts, 1957; Stephan, 1971; Vysokov, 1996). The island or parts of it have been passed back and forth between Russia and Japan, reflecting shifts in their relative power. A dispute over control was settled temporarily by the treaty of 1855, in which both sides agreed that Sakhalin would become a territory shared equally between Russia and Japan. But, in 1875, Russia acquired all of Sakhalin in exchange for the Kuril Islands. As a result of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the southern part of the island below 50ºN latitude was granted to Japan by the Treaty of Portsmouth. After the Russian Revolution, the Japanese occupied all of Sakhalin, but they withdrew peacefully in 1925. In the following year, White Russian forces were driven out of the north by Soviet troops. Finally, in 1945 at the close of World War II, the Soviet Union regained the southern half of the island (along with the Kurils), and Sakhalin's entire Japanese population was eventually repatriated. At present, Sakhalin, together with the Kuril Islands, is an administrative district (oblast) of the Far Eastern region of the Russian Republic. Although Japan no longer makes any official claim to Sakhalin, old animosities between Japanese and Russians still persist (Stephan, 1971; Vysokov, 1996).

Sakhalin is richer in natural resources than any comparable area in the Russian Far East (Stephan, 1971; Vysokov, 1996). Nearly half of its economy is based on the fishing industry, but also important are pulp and paper products, oil and gas, and to a lesser extent coal and timber. Since perestroika and the rush toward western-style capitalism, exploitation of these resources has increased dramatically, but nothing compares to the recent boom in oil and gas (Vysokov, 1996). At present, production is concentrated in the northeastern part of the island, from which output is transported to the mainland by pipelines to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, but exploration and production is spreading quickly throughout the island. Future increase in oil and gas production on a broad scale is especially dependent on offshore development of rich oil and gas fields on the northeastern Sakhalin shelf, but this too is moving ahead rapidly with substantial investments from foreign companies. The present acceleration of industrial and commercial development of Sakhalin, particularly as it affects the little known central and northern parts of the island, makes this a crucial time to carry out a detailed biological survey.

Copyright © University of Washington Fish Collection.