Monday, 01 May 2017 00:00

Balancing the interests of nature with those of commerce

Located in Prienai some 100 km west of Vilnius, Islauzo Zuvis is a traditional pond farm producing a number of species of freshwater fish. The pond surface area is about 500 hectares of which about 100 ha is used for organic production.

Among the 19 species produced are Siberian sturgeon and bester, a hybrid of beluga and sterlet, as well as trout in limited quantities. Common carp however dominates the production at over 80% of the total, while all the other species together make up the remainder. These include the Asian carps, i.e. bighead carp, grass carp, and silver carp. Altogether, 11 species are produced commercially.

Nineteen species of fish ae grown on the farm, 11 of them commercially.

 

Fish sold in a variety of formats

Darius Svirskis, the director of the company, is passionate about the natural production of fish. Although the majority of the production is conventional the difference between that and the organic production lies mainly in the fact that the feed for the latter is certified organic. The other conditions are all the same, he says. In terms of content the conventional feed is the same as the organic feed, but without the certification. In addition to farming fish, the company also processes its production. Hot and cold smoking are the main ways of processing, but since the facility was established the company has found that there is also demand for fresh fish in the form of cleaned fish and fillets on ice. In addition to being distributed through retail outlets, the processed production is sold through the company’s two shops, one of which is located next to the processing facility and close to the farming ponds. Here, a tank holding live fish is also present for customers who prefer this highly traditional way of buying fish. The fish are caught, placed in a plastic bag, weighed and handed over to the customer. While live fish used to be the only way to buy farmed carp and other cultured species, today things have changed, and customers often have neither the time nor the skills to deal with live fish.

 

Darius Svirskis, managing partner of Islauzo Zivis, a pond fish farming and processing company.

Organic production of fish since 2014

Mr Svirskis has a long history in the fish farming business. He was previously working at another large fish farm, one that had existed as a cooperative prior to the political changes in the 90s. Then, in 2003 he was asked to help manage a farm that was financially distressed. This was the start of Islauzo Zuvis. Initially, annual production was 5 tonnes, last year, however, it reached 850 tonnes and in 2017 he is expecting it to touch 1,000 tonnes. While this would give a productivity of around 2 tonnes per ha, the organic production tends to reduce the average as there are limits on the density that is permitted in the ponds. Although an ichthyologist by training Mr Svirskis had to learn about fish farming when he took over the farm. To do this he travelled to Hungary, the Czech Republic, and even Israel, seeking knowledge and inspiration. While the farm itself was in reasonably good shape, when he took it over, and did not require much in terms of renovation, the organic ponds are something new that Mr Svirskis started in 2014 as much out of personal conviction as commercial considerations. Here the entire cycle is organic starting from the spawning by the broodstock. As far as possible everything is allowed to happen naturally with little or no human intervention. No drugs or chemicals are used at any phase in the growing process, incubators are not used for hatching the eggs, the feed at all stages is natural fodder that the fish would also eat in the wild. Today, the organic production is certified by Ekoagros, a Lithuanian body that certifies agricultural products.

The fish are collected in a container, which can then be hoisted up by a crane and emptied into a storage tank.

 

Lithuania is the main market

In addition to distribution through the company’s fish shops, the fish is also sold through the main supermarket chains. However, only live fish is sold this way. In earlier years the company had focused on export markets sending fish to Poland and Latvia. Here demand was seasonal and mainly in winter. Now, however, Mr Svirskis concentrates on the domestic market, where the sale is all the year round, so a third of the production goes to the retail sector, a third to the company’s own shops, and only a third is exported. Carp has been consumed for decades in Lithuania and has a special significance in the eyes of consumers. Despite the presence of many other species of fish on the market, including mackerel, Atlantic herring, salmon, and also fish from other parts of the world, consumption of carp has stayed broadly stable. For Islauzo Zuvis the main threat is not so much from other fish species as it is from other Lithuanian producers of carp. Mr Svirskis emphasises that pond-grown fish is not only healthful, but also locally produced in natural conditions and therefore a more environmentally-friendly alternative to imported fish. To promote his ideas about fish farmed in ponds Mr Svirskis plans to open a restaurant that will serve a variety of dishes using his own fish. This will show diners what freshly caught and prepared fish that have been grown in natural conditions can offer in terms of taste and health. The concern with natural products extends also to the production in the processing facility, where there is no use of artificial preserving agents.

 

Challenges include predators, finding qualified labour

In common with pond farmers across Europe Mr Svirskis has a problem with cormorants. He installed guns to fire explosives at intervals to scare off the birds, but over time they got used to the sound and no longer feel threatened by it. He has therefore employed six people just to scare the pests. Although the amount the birds actually eat is modest, their presence stresses the fish making them more vulnerable to illnesses. In addition, they can damage the fish without killing them, which too makes them more prone to disease. Partly to reduce this vulnerability the farm has a breeding programme that selects the most disease resistant, fast-growing, and good looking fish to propagate. This kind of selection work calls for well-qualified staff, another issue the farm is battling. Such people are very difficult to find, says Mr Svirskis, and he has been forced to hire people from other countries. But it is much more time consuming to find and employ people particularly, which is usually the case, from outside the EU. The problem, according to him, is that the qualified Lithuanians do not meet the company’s requirements.

From an environmental point of view, pond farms are good for biodiversity, says Mr Svirskis. His ponds host a variety of animal and bird life, but they are a mixed blessing. Some birds, such as swans, may not eat the fish itself, but will compete with the fish for feed, while animals such as otters prey on the fish. The challenge is to find the right balance between allowing nature to run its course and intervening in the interests of a commercially viable business.