Several measures directed at ensuring the well-being of stocks
Maintaining the stock of these and other species that populate the lake is the responsibility of Balaton Fisheries Nonprofit Ltd., a state-owned company charged with conserving, developing, and managing fish stocks in the lake. The company has a wide remit. The overall objective of managing fish stocks includes protecting, maintaining, and developing spawning and nursery areas in the lake, habitat reconstruction, breeding and restocking, the development of fishing tourism, protection against predators such as cormorants, and the management of fishing in the lake through the sale of permits. The income generated from these sales is not transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture, which owns the company, but is retained and used to fund all the other activities.
The company has six sites for the production of fingerlings for restocking/sale with a total area of 1,050 ha. Two of the sites are owned, while the other four are managed by the company. The company has to meet a stocking obligation of 300 t of common carp, but significantly more can be produced on the six sites so the stocking requirements are easily met. In fact, Zsolt Szári, the managing director, says that the company usually restocks more than the obligatory 300 tonnes. In 2020, for example, over 337 tonnes of common carp were introduced into the lake. Although only four of the six farming sites were active, total production amounted to 800 tonnes from fry to market-sized fish. After restocking, the remainder of the output is sold to angling associations or may also be exported. The farm has its own broodstock and grows the carp for two or three years before releasing them into the lake for the anglers. Thanks to this fully integrated production no fish is brought to the farm, which is an important biosecurity consideration; fish only leaves the farm. In addition to carp, the company breeds and stocks six tonnes of pikeperch fingerlings a year, along with smaller quantities of pike, asp, Volga pikeperch, tench and burbot. The company is also part of a consortium that is involved in habitat reconstruction directed at pikeperch nests with a view to increasing natural spawning of this species. The project, a research, development, and innovation undertaking, includes the breeding for restocking of Volga pikeperch and asp and the use of zebra mussels, an invasive species, as a feed source during the pond rearing of fish. The project is funded through an EU economic development programme.
Loss of spawning grounds puts pressure on the common carp stock
While restocking efforts are directed primarily at the above species most prized by anglers, the lake is home to several other species as well. Stocks of predatory species such as European catfish and pikeperch are performing well (the latter helped by restocking efforts) with satisfactory levels of recruitment, but stocks that lay their eggs on vegetation (phytophilic species), such as common carp are under pressure partly due to a loss of spawning grounds. The railway that was built on the southern shore of the lake cut it off from the swamps that provided these species with their spawning area. However, other phytophilic species, such as roach and bream, are thriving as they can also spawn on algae-covered stones.
As in other parts of Europe, particularly in areas where pond fish farming is common, cormorants are an ever-present threat. The mandate of Balaton Fisheries Nonprofit Ltd. includes the most effective control of this predator of which there is both a nesting population and a much larger migratory population coming from the Baltic in winter The company tries to minimise the damage caused by this pest by culling and scaring cormorants on its fish ponds (it may not do so on the lake itself). Annually, it shoots around 800 birds, which is enough only to keep the local nesting population at bay, but is both insufficient and inefficient against the wintering stock coming from the Baltic. Additional efforts to preserve the lake’s native fauna include a selective fishery of alien species—Prussian carp, silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp, and eel—in the streams leading to the lake where some of these species go to spawn. Eels are captured in an eel trap installed in the outflow of the Sió canal to remove them. Trials are also being conducted on removing bullhead catfishes, another invader, from the ports around the lake using fyke nets. The biomass of the caught fish is not large, some 5 tonnes of Prussian carp, 5-30 tonnes of eel, and minimal quantities of the other species. Some of this fish is sold on the market, while the rest is destroyed if it has no commercial value. In contrast, commercial fishing on the lake, when it existed before 2013 yielded 600-800 tonnes of fish, mainly breams. Today, approximately the same quantity is caught by anglers though the mix of species is different.
Labels to guarantee quality and authenticity
The company also makes use of a label “Quality Fish from Hungary” which is used to designate two fish species produced at two of its farming sites, a long-bodied Balaton landrace of common carp and pikeperch. To qualify for the label the production process is audited, and the fish are subjected to chemical and organoleptic tests. In addition, fish from the company’s farm sites qualifies for the protected geographical indication, “Balatoni hal”, an indication in the final stage of approval by the European Commission that certifies that the fish are produced in the catchment area of Lake Balaton. Demand for fish from Lake Balaton has always been significant, Mr Szári states, in fact more than what the lake could supply. Balaton Fisheries Nonprofit sells the fish it produces at its sites to the hotels and restaurants around the lake, but this fish must compete with imports, for example, pikeperch from Kazakhstan and other countries.
Each year some 100,000 anglers visit the lake, a number that has been increasing over the years, says Mr Szári. They provide over 80% of the company’s revenues through their purchase of fishing permits. The anglers target common carp mainly, though pikeperch is also popular. Part of the income from the sale of fishing permits goes towards stock management activities and the development of fishing tourism at the lake. The company participates in the organisation of a series of fishing tournaments which includes two major carp fishing competitions as well as several smaller events held through the year. The two big events are held in spring and in autumn and are among the largest such events in the world with 250 competing teams. The company also offers accommodation to anglers at Keszthely, one of the towns at the western end of the lake, where it has built cottages for anglers to stay, but there are also any number of privately owned hotels and restaurants in the towns around the lake. For an angler, whether it is finding a place to stay or fish to catch, Lake Balaton clearly offers it all.