Tuesday, 16 February 2021 13:07

Resource-rich Ukraine expands fishing, farming, and its links to international markets

EM1 21 UA OverviewSeafood consumption on the increase

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 1 / 2021.

Ukraine celebrates its 30th anniversary of independence this year. As a young and developing country it is still implementing the reforms designed to build a modern and efficient state. Initial efforts catalysed the signing of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement in 2014, which entered into force in 2017 and which, when fully ratified, offers Ukraine duty-free access to the EU market, political and financial support, and access to EU research and other programmes. In return, Ukraine shall continue more firmly on its path of reform particularly in the legislative and judicial area, economic regulation, and finance.

Rich in natural resources, Ukraine has always had excellent conditions for fishing and aquaculture. The fisheries sector is the third most important source of Ukraine’s animal protein supply after the meat and poultry industries, and it plays a notable role in ensuring
food security.

The world’s only producer of krill for human food

Ukraine’s commercial fishing is active in four major areas: the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, inland waters, and the high seas. The loss of Crimea in 2014 hurt capture fisheries in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov by cutting harvesters’ access to over 50% of Ukraine’s fish and shellfish resources and contributing to a decline of over 60% in the country’s total fisheries production. Since then, production has slowly recovered though without reaching the volumes of the past: in 2019 total output from capture fisheries reached 82 thousand tonnes, over 20% more than the previous year.

Marine fisheries in the Azov-Black Sea basin are dominated by goby, Black Sea and European sprats, European anchovy, and rapa whelk, which together make up as much as 90% of the catches in the area. Over the past several years catches in the Sea of Azov have been slowly shrinking for both natural and man-made reasons. The former include the decrease of the density of goby and Black Sea sprat (tyulka) stocks in the area. The latter include the closure of fishing grounds in Kerch strait due to the opening of the Crimean bridge, which caused a reduction in European anchovy catches. Moreover, the proximity of the Black Sea sprat fishery to the Donbass conflict area has made fishing there too risky for fishers. In 2019 production from the Sea of Azov was 16 thousand tonnes, about 25% less than in 2018. At the same time, the yield of fisheries in the Black Sea have been steadily increasing, mainly due to the growth of rapa whelk catches that more than doubled from 2018 to 2019, to more than 11 thousand tonnes. Total catches in the area reached 14 thousand tonnes—up more than 60% compared to 2018.

Inland fisheries consist of freshwater fish catches in the Dnieper and Danube rivers, the Dnieper Bug estuary, ponds and lakes both natural and man-made, and water reservoirs built on rivers (the largest of them are informally called “seas”). Pike-perch, various species of cyprinids (bream, Prussian carp and roach) among other freshwater species dominate inland catches, which in 2019 totalled 30 thousand tonnes. In the structure of the inland fisheries, the State Agency for Fisheries of Ukraine highlights the role of the Special Commercial Fisheries Enterprises that combine fishing and aquaculture, harvesting in lakes and certain parts of water reservoirs. Catch volumes by these enterprises have slowly grown in recent years to 8 thousand tonnes in 2019, or 28% of the total inland fisheries production. Ukraine’s oceanic fleet has shown a notable increase in volumes in recent years. According to the State Agency for Fisheries, in 2019 the total volumes reached 22 thousand tonnes—an almost three-fold increase compared to 2017. Ukraine is one of eight countries in the world harvesting Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) for fish meal and the only one in the world producing krill meat for human consumption, which is processed directly on board the Ukrainian flagged trawler More Sodruzhestva (Cooperation Sea). The krill harvest in 2019 represented over 97% of the country’s total high seas fishery volumes. Other species in the harvest include Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish, mackerel, icefish, and species of Macrouridae family in small quantities.

Ukraine’s fisheries production has grown in recent years despite the obstacles. Sharply reduced access to traditional fishing grounds and loss of resources for environmental reasons, among other problems, have been compensated for with expanded harvests of krill and other high seas species, and increased attention to non traditional species.

Both old and new technology behind products from aquaculture

Due to its rich water resources, including the Dnieper and Dniester river basins, brackish waters of the Black and Azov Sea estuaries, together with over 50 thousand natural and man-made ponds, Ukraine’s aquaculture sector has the potential to develop further. Currently, most cultivation facilities are freshwater pond-based farms which deliver about 90% of the country’s aquaculture volumes. The major farmed species are common carp, bighead and silver carps, grass carp, Prussian carp, tench, European and African catfish, pike, pike-perch, various sturgeon species, and rainbow trout.

Aquaculture production in Ukraine has been stable over the past ten years, fluctuating around 20 thousand tonnes annually. On average, fish for human consumption forms 80% of the total yield, while the rest is used for restocking. In 2019, the total production of farmed species amounted to 19 thousand tonnes of which 15 thousand tonnes were destined for human consumption.

Common carp and Chinese carps (bighead, silver, and grass carp) remain the sector’s mainstay, accounting for 80 to 90 per cent of the farmed volumes each year. Special focus is directed at the cultivation of bighead and silver carps, as it is known that their meat has a positive impact on the cardiovascular system and can help alleviate hypertension and reduce blood cholesterol. Additionally, the collagen extracted from the skins of these two species is widely used in cosmetology for facial treatment. However, industry experts estimate that in the near future the production of carp species will stagnate as the domestic market for human food from these species is saturated.

The most impressive growth is seen in the volumes of farmed catfish species, traditional European catfish about which many scary folk legends have long been told, and the more recently introduced African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). The production of catfish species has increased 260% since 2015, reaching 224 tonnes in 2019.

Farming of sturgeons, including sterlet, sevruga, Russian and Siberian sturgeons, is a developing segment of Ukraine’s farming industry and production in 2019 exceeded 97 tonnes. Unlike carps, cultivation of sturgeons uses intensive technologies typically involving cages. However, the use of RAS (recirculation aquaculture systems) units has gained favour in recent years due to the systems’ compact size, better control over the stock, faster growth of the fish, and overall efficiency. In addition, both domestic and international standards can be relatively easily met with RAS, which is important for expansion into markets abroad.

The use of RAS systems is also visible in the production of salmonids, rainbow and brown trout in particular. Currently, there are over a hundred trout producers in Ukraine, mainly micro enterprises or SMEs, and about 30 of them have switched partially or completely to RAS. The total production of salmonids in 2019 amounted to 226 tonnes, a decrease of 15% from 2018. Among the limiting factors are the low purchasing power of the population, high costs of the imported feed, and sometimes, insufficient access to suitable water sources.

For a long time, the development of mariculture in Ukraine has been purely experimental, and after the loss of Crimea possibilities became even more limited. In addition, most of the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea is known for rough changes of seasons, strong storms, changes in water salinity, anthropogenic pressure, and lack of spatial planning. The production of bivalves, especially the Mediterranean mussel, is possible but probably not in large volumes.

All in all, while the production of high-value species has been slowly growing over the past years, their total current volumes barely exceed 10 of Ukraine’s total aquaculture production.

Imports dwarf exports, but exports almost triple in value

Ukraine is a net importer of fish and seafood because the most popular and traditional species including herring, mackerel, salmon, Alaskan pollock, horse mackerel, and hake, are neither found in Ukrainian waters nor farmed locally. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, seafood import volumes have been growing and in 2019 reached 399 thousand tonnes worth 357 million US dollars, more than doubling in value and an almost two-fold increase in volume compared to 2015. Preliminary statistics for 2020, based on data from the State Customs Service of Ukraine, indicates further growth of fish and seafood imports to 411 thousand tonnes amounting to USD 804 million.

Over the past several years, the largest volumes have come from Norway (salmon, trout, herring, mackerel), Iceland (herring, mackerel), USA (hake, Alaskan pollock), Estonia (herring, sardines, sprats), and Canada (cold water shrimps). On average, around 80% of the annual imported volumes are frozen fish and fillets, while about 10% are canned fish, crustaceans, and molluscs with major volumes arriving from Chile, China, Latvia, and Lithuania among others. Import volumes in 2019 increased for fresh fish, fish fillets, and crustaceans.

Compared to the volumes of imports and the domestic harvest, the level of Ukraine’s fish and seafood exports is not high, however it has been moderately growing over the past five or six years, amounting to 12 thousand tonnes in volume, worth USD 46 million in 2019.

Canned and ready-to-eat products from sprats, sardines, sardinella, molluscs, and crustaceans dominated total export volumes, reaching 5,243 tonnes, or nearly half of the country’s total exports of fish and seafood. Fillets of cod, salmon, and pikeperch along with other species were the second biggest export, amounting to 3,707 tonnes, over 30% of the total, followed by molluscs (1,089 tonnes, or 10%). Prepared products were destined mainly for CIS countries, including Moldova, Armenia, and Belarus, among others. Export volumes in 2019 increased for fish fillets and molluscs in different product forms: in particular, fish fillets to Denmark and Germany. Turkey was the largest importer of Ukrainian molluscs (entirely rapa whelk), while a smaller share went to South Korea, which is a new and growing market for this species from Ukraine.

Canning delivers half of the total processed fish output

Ukrainian consumers prefer their domestic fish unprocessed (live, fresh, or frozen), and this is especially true when it comes to carps and catfish, of which up to 90% are sold live or chilled. The larger share of processed products is made of imported raw materials: herring, sprat, sardines, mackerel or their fillets. A small share of the wild fish caught locally, marine species like goby, European anchovy, Black Sea sprat, and freshwater bream, common roach, silver bream, and others, are processed into dried, smoked, or dry-cured products. The canning sector traditionally delivers the largest share of the total processed volumes and in 2019 canned products amounted to 33 thousand tonnes, reaching 49% of the total processed output of 68 thousand tonnes (the same as in 2018). At the beginning of last year 29 fish processing units in Ukraine were certified to exports to the EU.

Reflecting the world’s growing demand for fish with higher value-addition, the country’s production of fish fillets, frozen, fresh, smoked, dried, or salted, has risen moderately over the past several years. Fish importers have started to increase their processing capacities to satisfy local demand which currently stems mainly from the metropolitan areas. On the other hand, they keep an eye on potential export markets, as Ukrainian labour is efficiently priced giving Ukrainian processors and exporters a competitive advantage. Although the country’s processed fish exports are still low, the potential is promising.

City consumers enjoy imported species, rural buyers stick to local fish

Solid growth in imports combined with stable exports and production volumes has resulted in an increase in fish and seafood consumption in Ukraine. In 2019 per capita consumption reached 12.9 kg compared to 11.8 kg in the previous year. Unlike in some other European countries with a strong Catholic tradition where fish consumption grows during the church holidays of Easter and Christmas, fish consumption in Ukraine rises from October, when fish farmers start harvesting and supplying the domestic market with large volumes of fish at more attractive prices. This growth continues through the New Year festivities, followed by the official Eastern Orthodox Christmas on 7 January, and later by the New Year which is still unofficially but gladly celebrated by Ukrainians on 14 January in accordance with the Julian Calendar.

Consumption is not homogenous throughout the country: larger volumes of fish and seafood are consumed in big cities where people generally have higher incomes, and in the areas next to big water basins. Imported fish and fish with high levels of valueaddition are mainly consumed in the big cities, while locally caught or farmed fish is more popular in the rural and coastal areas.

Fish consumption levels and patterns are also influenced by political issues. The Ukraine– European Union Association Agreement signed in 2014 followed by visa-free travel rules applied in 2017, together with liberalised procedures for getting a job abroad (Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, and Portugal in particular) led to an increase in the incomes of Ukrainians living and working abroad, which subsequently improved the general welfare of their families residing in Ukraine. It is difficult to predict how long this trend will continue, but as of today it has a notable impact on consumer purchasing ability and on the country’s seafood consumption.

Sunnier skies ahead

Ukraine fish industry has shown resilience during the geopolitical conflicts of recent years, rebuilding its capture sector and expanding its aquaculture largely with non traditional species. The Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement offers expanded market opportunities for its small export sector, access to EU research, and support for improving the fish industry’s efficiency and for developing new products.

Aleksandra Petersen, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Data and images courtesy Methodological and Technological Center for Aquaculture, State Agency for Fisheries of Ukraine