Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
INVESTIGATION: Poachers Drive Macedonia's Unique Trout Towards Extinction
At a fish restaurant in the Macedonian capital Skopje, a waiter smiles winningly across the table.
“The trout is very fresh - it was caught only the other day,” he murmurs. “They brought it 200km from Lake Ohrid to our restaurant, where we serve it according to the national recipe.”
He adds conspiratorially, “If you were caught with this type of fish, you could go to prison.”
It is a routine exchange between diners and waiters in top restaurants across the country.
In February 2005, Macedonia imposed a total ban on fishing the Ohrid trout, a unique and now gravely threatened species.
Yet fishermen, smugglers and restaurant owners continue to flout the law and deplete the remaining stocks.
The main explanation for their behaviour is simple - money. A glance at any restaurant menu reveals that the Ohrid trout sells for over 30 euro per kilogram, a considerable sum in this relatively poor country.
For many, the temptation to get their hands on such easy income is great.
AN INCREASINGLY RARE DELICACY
The Ohrid trout, or salmo letnica, lives only in this one lake in Macedonia and is highly prized by fishermen and gourmets alike. The fish was identified as a unique species in 1924.
It is found only in Lake Ohrid, which was formed in the Ice Age and whose waters are so pure that with the naked eye one can easily see the bottom even when it is more than 10 metres deep.
For centuries a staple food for the peasants and fishermen who lived round the water’s edge, stocks held up well until recent times. Until the Eighties, around 220 tons of trout were caught each year and it was not uncommon for anglers to catch fish weighing five kilograms.
But the last two decades have not been kind to the lake’s most famous culinary emblem.
Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, deregulation, over-fishing and the introduction of non-native species have had a calamitous effect.
The Ohrid Trout Company, the Macedonian company responsible for commercial fishing until last year, employed game wardens to protect the lake’s natural resources. But when the government ended its concession to the company in March 2004, the wardens disappeared.
Catches have tailed off dramatically. In 1996, the World Conservation Union placed the fish on its Red List of endangered species.
In February 2005, Macedonia’s government finally took action and introduced a total ban on fishing in the lake.
However, the fishing has carried on regardless. A network of smugglers and buyers ensures that anyone with enough cash – including leading politicians and celebrities - continue to devour Ohrid trout in many top restaurants.
NETWORK OF POACHERS AND RESTAURANTS
Groups of local fishermen are responsible for most of the illegal catches that continue to be hauled out of the lake, week after week.
One restaurant owner in Struga, at the northern end of Lake Ohrid, admitted to Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, that fishermen offer their illegal catches to a tight-knit, secretive ring of restaurant owners and fish merchants.
“They only deliver the trout to those they trust - to restaurant owners or fish shops,” he said. “The fishmongers will only sell it on if they know you.
“They know it’s forbidden to fish for trout on the lake and that it may have consequences, which is why they are afraid to offer the fish to strangers.”
Fishermen use trusted middlemen to phone up the restaurants, or else they show up themselves to offer their illegal catch.
The restaurants openly flout the rules. Seven of the best-known places in the town of Ohrid still list the trout on their menus. Five offered to serve the fish to BCR reporters posing as diners.
Boris Georgievski, from the angling association St Apostol Petar, told BCR that lakeside eateries had ignored an initiative to remove Ohrid trout from the menus. Only one, Hotel Donco, had gone along with the scheme, he said, and, “the rest said such a move would damage tourism.”
It was indicative of the slack approach to the ban that when the great tenor Jose Carreras was invited to open this year’s Ohrid summer festival, the organisers boasted that the singer would be served the local trout.
BCR has also learned that trout is regularly prepared in the presidential villa in Ohrid when senior government officials are in residence.
And the problem is not limited to Ohrid itself, with a number of surrounding lakeside villages also home to restaurants that serve trout.
To find out just how easy it is to taste the delicacy, BCR went to a restaurant in Peshtani. There, staff offered to provide trout for up to 10 people with just a day’s notice.
While one restaurant owner told BCR that impoverished fishermen had no option but to defy the ban in order to feed their families, sporting anglers are less sympathetic.
Georgievski says the ban has only stimulated illegal fishing. “Before, there used to be only three people from the village of Trpejca casting nets, but now there are perhaps just three who aren’t doing it,” he said.
“The business is so big that fishermen in Radozda [village] are publicly quarrelling over who should get to cast their nets in the lake,” he added.
Georgievski said the blanket nature of the ban was one factor stimulating the collective defiance of the law. Groups such as his own had sought a selective ban, covering only certain endangered fish.
The ban has also pushed up the price of trout, giving poachers another incentive. Poachers told BCR that the wholesale price for fresh Ohrid trout on the black market had jumped to 850 denars, or around 12 euro, per kilogram from only 600 denars before the ban.
With costs rising, restaurant prices have gone up accordingly. But staff told BCR that customers seemed willing to pay extra money to enjoy the forbidden taste.
BCR sources among both poachers and the police said most illegal fishermen in Macedonia are based in the villages of Kalista, Radozda, Andon Dukov, Sveti Stefan, Pestani and Trpejca.
They cast their illegal nets at night and gather them in at dawn, when visibility is still poor.
Police say they lack the equipment to spot nocturnal poachers. “It’s very hard to catch illegal fishermen on the spot,” said Ohrid police chief Branko Jovanovski.
“The fishermen often put nets in the lake at night and leave them for days,” he added. “They collect them later, when our officers are unable to see them.”
The police have arrested few actual poachers, but have had more success in impounding nets on the lake.
In the first six months of 2005, Ohrid police confiscated more than 1,200 fishing nets found in the lake.
Jovanovski says fishermen probably abandoned the nets after the police had spotted them at work.
It is questionable whether arresting more poachers would have much of an impact on the trade, as fines are small.
“Even if they do catch them, the penalties are symbolic at about 25 euro,” said Georgievski. He added that while police charged more 70 poachers in 2004, not one of them was convicted.
In any case, the police do not see chasing poachers as their priority. Their main mission is to guard the border with Albania, which runs through the western end of the lake.
The profit margins involved in illegal trout fishing mean there will always be plenty of people willing to take their chances against the small, under-equipped police force.
THREAT OF EXTINCTION
While poachers and the restaurant owners continue their double act, Macedonian scientists are sounding the alarm over the fish’s future. The scale of the poaching and the methods used are threatening the trout with extinction, they say.
“They are catching fish throughout the year, including in the breeding season when they should be left alone,” Zoran Spirkovski of Ohrid’s Hydro-Biological Institute told BCR.
“Poachers are not fishing selectively as the fishermen used to do in the past,” he added. “Immature fish are being pulled from the lake before they breed.”
He continued, “The nets are also too large and the mesh so fine that poachers can catch huge quantities of fish with a single cast.”
Spirkovski is not optimistic about the trout’s chances of survival. “If fishing really stops until stocks reach a sustainable level, commercial fishing could begin again,” he told BCR. “But until now, profits have always come before sustainability.”
One proposed solution is to increase fish stocks by artificial spawning. This involves catching adult fish, stripping them of their eggs and then hatching the eggs in managed environments.
But the adult fish still need to be caught in the first place and hatchery scientists have told BCR that the number of eggs available for collection by the three existing hatcheries - two in Macedonia and one in Albania – has fallen. Of a projected figure of four million eggs targeted for collection and artificial hatching this year, the hatcheries only caught three million, despite increased efforts.
Scientists say that even if an effective ban was in place it might be too late, as it would not apply to the waters lying in Albania.
There is no complete ban on trout fishing in Albanian, and none is yet in sight.
Dejan Panovski, of the Ohrid lake protection project, explained, “Albania doesn’t ban fishing, as it is the primary source of livelihood for many villages on the Albanian shore.”
ALBANIANS FISH TO EAT AS WELL AS SELL
At the frontier town of Pogradec, on the Albanian side of the lake, living standards are markedly lower than in Macedonia.
Restaurants and small eateries in the town all offer Ohrid trout. It is also caught for private consumption by Albanian fishermen and their families.
Unlike Macedonia, it is not illegal to catch the fish here, as the two countries have never harmonised fishing legislation.
The discrepancy is a source of concern for anglers’ groups in Ohrid and Struga, in Macedonia, who point out that stocks will never revive while trout continues to be fished in large quantities in Albania’s sector of the lake.
“Much of the smuggling is coming from the Albanian side,” Georgievski says.
But Naum Gekprifti, president of an ecological group based in Pogradec, disagrees. A total ban on trout fishing in Albania is unrealistic while so many people live off the catches, he said.
Some 250 families in Pogradec alone depend on trout fishing for their only source of income, he added.
“There used to be 500 families in Pogradec who lived off trout fishing,” Gekprifiti went on. “But many of them packed up as there were simply not enough fish.”
Gekprifiti said the decline in fishing in Pogradec was echoed all along the Albanian shoreline of Lake Ohrid.
“In the villages of Lin, Piskupat, Hudensiht and Pogradec there used to be 1,200 fishing boats but now there are less than 500.”
Gekprifiti insisted that the scale of Albanian trout smuggling is often exaggerated, while the motives of those taking part were also different from those of Macedonian poachers.
“The Albanians are doing it for survival while the Macedonians are doing it to make more money,” he said.
Macedonian police told BCR that in 2004 they logged seven cases of Albanian fishermen poaching inside Macedonian territorial waters.
They said they suspected that some trout sold in Macedonian restaurants had been fished by groups operating from across the border.
Albanian customs officers say they do their best to stop road transport of illegally caught fish.
“Some individuals may still get a couple of kilograms of trout past us, but there are no large quantities of trout crossing the border,” one officer told BCR.
Like the Macedonian police, however, they admit that their main task is not catching smuggled fish but targeting the trade in narcotics.
There is no evidence that customs officials on either side of the frontier are effectively dampening the trade in smuggled trout.
While Macedonian police and customs officials say they do their best to prevent trout poaching and smuggling, BCR can reveal that nothing is being done to penalise restaurants offering Ohrid trout on the menu.
A 1984 law on restaurants obliged establishments to declare the origins of all fish on their menus. But parliament removed the relevant paragraph when the law was amended in 1993.
“We aren’t sure why that paragraph was erased,” Blagoja Stevanovski, head of the country’s agricultural inspection department, told BCR. “We are now trying to get it reinstated.”
Stevanovski said Macedonia’s animal veterinary and market inspection department was now in charge of checking whether restaurants had Ohrid trout on their menus.
But a veterinary inspector told BCR that his colleagues did no such thing, because of confusion over which section of the department was responsible for what. “Our inspection teams are only interested in the health of the fish, not its origin,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He added that he believed the market inspection team was responsible for checking the fish’s origin. But a Skopje-based market inspection official told BCR that their department was not involved in this work either.
While official institutions wash their hands of the problem in this way, restaurants and hotels continue proudly to display trout on their menus.
Amid such indecision and confusion, there is little agreement on the way forward.
While some environmental groups say the existing ban should be extended and strengthened, the authorities are increasingly suggesting that it might even be dropped altogether.
AN END TO THE BAN?
Abdul Gafar Sinani, an official from Macedonia’s ministry of agriculture, told BCR that far from strengthening the ban on trout fishing, the government may even grant a new concession on the lake.
The government would reach a final decision in the autumn, after the current ban expires in August, he said. “In the meantime, it will find an interim solution, so there is no vacuum after August.”
“The final decision will be made by the government, based on expert opinion,” he added.
But Spirkovski of the Hydro-Biological Institute insisted that most experts firmly oppose any moves to resume licensed fishing.
A proposed government tender for fishing rights was withdrawn in June under pressure from the institute and the agriculture ministry’s fisheries department, he said.
“We have delivered reports that make it very clear that no [fishing] concession should be given [in Lake Ohrid],” he added. “Other types of fish might be allowed to be fished but not trout, bleak and carp. The stocks for these species are too low.”
At a time when Albania is signalling greater willingness to cooperate with its neighbour on a ban, Spirkovski said it would be “irrational to grant a concession to one of our own companies”.
He added, “The ban should be extended for five years. If not, we will react, and the public will react for sure.”
Bone Palasevski, of the institute of agriculture, agrees the ban should be extended. “The ban has been very brief, so we can’t assess its effects yet,” he said. “Our opinion is that the ban should be prolonged.”
That is also the feeling of anglers’ groups like St Apostol Petar. “The ban on fishing trout and bleak should stand for five or even 10 years,” said Radovan Dimitrievski, a member of the organisation’s board.
“The state isn’t taking the problem seriously. If it did, it would have solved it by now. We’ve been talking about this for years but no one has listened.”
Igor Micevski and Meri Bakalova are trainees with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, IWPR’s partner in the Balkans.
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