Thursday, 10 December 2020 13:09

The fisheries and aquaculture sector in Bulgaria

EM6 20 BGFish and seafood production in Bulgaria stem primarily from capture fisheries in the Black Sea, and freshwater and marine aquaculture. Freshwater catches, which come mainly from the Danube, are nugatory. Black Sea catches have remained stable over the last years, while production from fish farms, of carps and trout in particular, has grown steadily.

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 6 / 2020.

The 1990s saw a major restructuring of the industry with the political changes that spread across Eastern Europe. The management of fisheries and aquaculture in the period of transition to a market economy changed dramatically. The Black Sea fisheries were privatised as were enterprises for fish processing and fish farming, and ocean fishing was liquidated due to the inefficiencies of the state-owned monopoly that was responsible for this subsector.

Fleet characterised by larges numbers of small vessels

The total production of fish comes from two  main sources—commercial fishing and aquaculture. Commercial fishing is divided into two groups—marine fishing in the Black Sea and freshwater fishing in the Danube and other inland waters (medium and large dams). Commercial fishing in the Black Sea and the Danube is with fishing gear from land, and from vessels. These vary in  size, up to 6 m, 12 m, 18 m, 24 m, and above 24 m. Fishing vessels operating in the river Danube typically have a length of 6-7 m. At the end of 2018 the Bulgarian fishing fleet operating in the Black Sea comprised 1,857 fishing vessel with a total capacity of 6,000 tonnes and engine power of 55,000 kW. Of these, 95% are smaller than 12 m. Gill nets (both floating, and anchored) are the preferred fishing gear. In the period 2007-2018, the fleet decreased in both tonnage and power in all segments. Any registration of an increase in tonnage or power in the fleet register is compensated by the elimination of at least the same amount of tonnage or power. The economic condition of the fleet is influenced by a number of factors, including old fishing vessels (average age is about 23 years); imbalance between variable costs and current revenues; low purchasing power of the population; seasonality of fishing (annual migration of economically important species); fluctuations in the price of fuel; lack of market regulator, ensuring the same level of purchase prices, which can determine the maximum and minimum values; lack of fish markets and centres for first sales close to ports.

Captures in the Black Sea and the Danube

Some Black Sea fish species of fish are caught only seasonally due to their migratory nature. Other fish, so-called local species (non migratory), are subject to seasonal or year-round fishing. The latter include sprat (Sprattus sprattus), turbot (Psetta maxima), goby (Gobiidae), horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus), sea mullet (Mugil cephalus), whiting (Merlangius merlangius). Migratory species include anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), Caspian shad (Alosa kessleri), picked dogfish (Squalus acanthias), bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), bonito (Sarda sarda). Molluscs of commercial importance include Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) and sea snails (Rapana venosa). Catches of horse mackerel up to the 80s were 800-1000 t, but are now about 100 t per year. Atlantic bonito were an important commercial species until catches collaped from 700-1000 t at the start of the noughties to about 4 t in 2019. Turbot is subject to annual quotas, which in recent years were about 50 t. Stocks of Black Sea sturgeon species have decreased dramatically over the past two decades. Protection of these stocks, particularly of beluga (Huso huso), to allow them to recover calls for special measures including a moratorium on their catch in the whole Black Sea area for a period of 5 to 10 years.

FAO statistics show that total annual catches in the Black Sea have been stable in the five years to 2018. The structure of catches in the period shows that sprat and rapana dominate. In 2019, catches of these two species were 4,585 t and 4,222 t repectively (IARA). In 2018, the total catch amounted to 8,599 t, of which 8,545 t originated in the Black Sea and 54 t in the Danube. In comparison with 2017, catches in the Black Sea rose by 0.4% and in the Danube by 4%. Catches in the Danube are small, because populations of commercially important species are fragile. Catches of barbel, common carp, and bighead carp dominate the total. Minor quantities of freshwater bream, goldfish, silver carp and catfish are also part of the catch.

Production from freshwater fishing has suffered a steep decline

Fishing on the Danube is entirely by private persons, equipped with permits for commercial fishing issued by the Executive Agency for Fisheries and Aquaculture (IARA). On average, about 2,000 people are engaged in commercial fishing annually. For more than 60% of them fishing is their main occupation providing more than 70% of their income. A further 20% are part time fishers generating less than 50% of their income from this activity.  Between 2000 and 2012 the total annual catch from the Danube averaged some 1,100 t. However, from 2013 to 2018 the average collapsed to 87 tonnes. Adjustments to the river bed and the construction of protective dykes over a period of 50-60 years have changed the structure of commercial catches. In 2018, according to data from FAO, of the total catch of 54 t, 22% was barbel, 12% was common carp, and each of the remaning species including bighead carp, freshwater bream, goldfish, silver carp, and European catfish among others, was less than 10%.

Today, policy in the field of fisheries promotes the sustainable exploitation of living aquatic resources and the development of aquaculture; balances environmental, economic, and social priorities; and monitors and manages fish stocks to avoid to overexploitation. In the Bulgarian economy fisheries and aquaculture are not critical sectors (their share of GDP is less than 1%), but they are extremely important to livelihoods in some communities and for the development of parts of the Bulgarian seashore, and of the catchment areas of some Bulgarian rivers, particularly the Danube.

Common carp and rainbow trout dominate aquaculture

Bulgaria is poor in lakes and large rivers. Water resources available for breeding fish and other organisms include territorial coastal waters of the Black Sea and artificial water bodies in the interior of the country. The latter are fed by rivers, underground water (springs or borewells), rain, and snow melt. The average volume of water available per capita per year is 2,300-2,500 cubic m. About 44% of the water used is for irrigation, 13% for drinking and domestic water supply and 43% for industrial needs.

The production of fish and other aquatic organisms in Bulgaria is traditionally from freshwater aquaculture. However, the production of Mediterranean mussels in the Black Sea has grown significantly since it started in the 80s. In 2018 it exceeded 2,500 t representing about 15% of the total production from aquaculture. Due to several hydrological, climatic, and geographical features of the Black Sea, the development of other types of mariculture is either not feasible or not cost-effective. Production from freshwater aquaculture therefore dominates in terms both of output and the diversity of species farmed. The number of local species of fish and other aquatic organisms cultivated has grown in recent years. This can be attributed to demand from the market and the insufficient yields from fishing. Local species are popular thanks to their taste, quality, and because consumers are familiar with them. Fish breeding is most often in polyculture in dams or pond farms. According to IARA, in 2019 the total production of aquaculture (stocking material of fish and other aquatic organisms) amounted to 16,442 t. Production from aquaculture is dominated by two species, common carp and rainbow trout, each of which in 2018 accounted for 30% of the total farmed fish and shellfish output of 16,342 t. North African catfish showed an impressive increase in production from 2014 to 2017, but then fell back 70% to 281 t in 2018. Bighead carp accounted for 13% of the total and significant volumes of grass carp, sturgeons, European catfish, and goldfish were also produced in 2018. Grass carp is an important regulator of phytoplankton in ponds and traditionally is used for biological control of the quality of water, especially in reservoirs used for domestic water supply. It is traditionally a component of polyculture and most often is used to utilise the natural food base of the reservoirs

Recirculation systems used to grow African catfish

Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is produced at two types of farms—those with concrete raceways supplied with water from a river or spring, and on cage farms in mountainous and semi-mountainous lakes. It is rarely produced in earthen ponds. its production in the period 2013-2019 was between 2,500 and 4,800 t. Around 80 farms, 17% of all active farms, produce this species. Most of these farms raise fish for consumption (portion-sized trout, 250-350 g) with only some nine farms producing trout roe. In the last few years several farms have begun to produce larger fish, distinguished by the red flesh typical of wild salmonid species, and which are  sold as salmon trout. Production of the only indigenous species of trout, river trout (Salmo trutta), is intended primarily for restocking rivers with the aim of restoring and maintaining natural fish populations in them.

Two species of catfish are produced in Bulgaria, wels catfish (Silurus glanis) production of which has stayed fairly stable at about 210 t per annum in the period 2014-2019, and African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). The latter is a relatively new species that has shown significant growth in production—reaching 909 t in 2017 but then declining to 281 t the following year. In contrast to the wels catfish, which is cultivated on 146 farms, African catfish is produced on two farms with recirculation systems.

Production of sturgeons from aquaculture has grown in recent years from 277 t in 2014 to 454 t in 2018 or 64%. Cultivation started 20 years ago mainly in connection with reduced natural stocks of these species in the Danube. A ban on catching sturgeons in the Danube and the Black Sea contributed to the growth of sturgeon farming, which was a source of fish for restocking and of caviar for international markets. Sturgeon meat comes mainly from the introduced non-native species of Siberian sturgeon (A. baerii) and paddlefish (P. spathula). Local species of interest include beluga (H. huso), sterlet (A. ruthenus) and Russian sturgeon (A. gueldenstaedtii). Cultivation of sturgeon are carried out mainly in raceways (66%), as well as pond farms (18%) and free breeding in dams (16%). In Bulgaria, after determining the sex of the fish at about two years of age, the male fish are sent to the market, and the females are reared to sexual maturity.

Urban residents are keen on fish

Fish and products derived from fish are popular among city-dwelling Bulgarians. In a survey, only 1% of adult urban residents do not consume fish. In comparison with fish, other aquatic organisms and derived products registered considerably less consumer interest. Fish roe, molluscs, and crustaceans are however more popular than algae products. Some 35% of urban residents (and 39% in small towns) consume fish once a week. In total, more than half the residents (54%) consume fish at least once a week, 77% do so 2-3 times a month, and 89% at least once a month. These products are consumed more among more affluent, better educated people between 36 and 60. Residents of the capital consume fish more intensively (80% of adult residents do it several times a month or more, compared to 75% for other cities). People who feel that it is healthy, eat fish significantly more often (87% consume it at least a few times a month or more). The main place for consumption of fish and fish products remains the home. In total 71% of urban residents consume fish and fish products at home several times a month. Local fish is relatively popular as over half the residents declare that they consume it at least once a month. Specialized fish restaurants are the least popular (1/4 do not consume fish in them). Fish is bought fresh or frozen once a week or several times a month, and less often as a ready-to-eat product or as a canned item.

Mackerel, trout, and carp are Bulgarians’ favourite species

Among the types of fish consumed, mackerel is the leader eaten by a third of residents. Trout was mentioned by 15%. Carp is in third place, chosen by one in ten residents, while a number of other species (sprat, hake, salmon, sea bream, fish tuna, shellfish and sea bass) were chosen by between 2.5% and 6.5% of residents. In terms of familiarity, sprat followed by mackerel topped the list. Carp, salmon, tuna were among the other species in the top 10 list of most familiar species. As the target group was urban residents, 66% identified hypermarkets, supermarkets, and fishmongers, as the places to obtain fish. Bulgaria is last but one in the consumption fish and aquaculture products in the EU with a per capita consumption of 7.3 kg per year, while the average level for the EU is 24.3 kg. Increasing Bulgarian consumption is in the interests of consumer health and of a thriving fisheries sector and all stakeholders should consider ways to achieve this.