Thursday, 03 June 2021 11:28

Lithuania: A challenging portfolio of responsibilities

Donatas Dudutis, Vice-Minister, Ministry of Agriculture, Republic of LithuaniaAs Vice-Minister responsible for fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mr Dudutis has plenty on his plate. The impact of the pandemic on the sector, the new operational programme for 2021–2027, the ban on cod fishing, and declining quotas for some pelagic species are just a few of the issues he must contend with. If that were not enough, he also needs to persuade the Lithuanian Parliament of the importance of maintaining the small-scale coastal and inland fishing sector, which is under threat from a proposal that could effectively forbid it.

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 3 2021.

Last year marked the global spread of the coronavirus and unprecedented lockdowns around the world. Globally traded food commodities, such as fish and seafood, and their supply chains have been particularly affected. What impact has the pandemic had on the fishing and processing sector in Lithuania? Was a compensation scheme implemented for the sector and what were the measures it included?

Yes, with the onset of the pandemic crisis the fishing, processing and aquaculture sectors reported a sharp drop in demand. Due to the closure of marketplaces, retail outlets and other distribution channels, prices and sales volumes decreased. Decisions on support for the sector were taken mid-2020 when the actual impact could only be estimated. We can now see statistics that show declines in all sub-sectors of the fisheries sector.

Fishery: Long-distance fishing activities were not significantly affected by Covid-19, catches did not decrease, revenues were stable, and this segment of the sector was profitable in 2020. The sector reported that it had encountered logistical problems (crew transportation, restrictions imposed by ports of landing, problems with product sales, etc.) but had adapted to the difficulties caused by the pandemic. Volumes of fish caught and sold by fishermen on the Baltic Sea coast in 2020 decreased by 23% compared to 2019, the lowest since 2011. In the open Baltic Sea fishery, the fall was 24%, the lowest since 2014. This segment has been severely affected by the ban on cod fishing and declining quotas for other commercial species. Over EUR100,000 was paid to 17 fishing companies in support. Applications are also being collected this year for the temporary cessation of fishing activities in 2020, which are still being assessed, but the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) regulation requires vessels to have fished for at least 120 days in the two years prior to the year of the application to qualify for support. This was unworkable for the vast majority of our fishing vessels. So, only about 15% of all fishing companies applied for and received support.

Aquaculture: To find out the impact of the pandemic on aquaculture, we conducted a survey at the beginning of this year, interviewing all Lithuanian aquaculture associations and a few individual companies. In 2020 a 10% decrease in the value of sales has been noticed, though the volume of production remained the same. The impact on aquaculture production sales depended on the sector segment – large pond and RAS aquaculture producers with long-term sales contracts with retailers had a secure market and sales volumes were not or only minimally affected by the pandemic restrictions. Companies with small ponds or RAS depend on consumers to buy products directly from them, on markets or similar outlets, so they were severely affected by the lockdown. In all segments, there was a surplus of manufactured products. With declining demand for aquaculture products and strong supply, production prices fell. According to preliminary data, in 2020 compared to 2019, the average price of commercial aquaculture products for consumption decreased by about 8%. Support from the EMFF amounting to over EUR1m was paid to 37 aquaculture enterprises.

Processing: The processing sector has been growing for a decade both in volume and value. In 2020, the 83 enterprises processed 138 thousand tonnes with a value of EUR623m. Over 95 percent of raw materials are imported. In 2020, the volume and value of production shrank by about 10 percent and equalled the 2016 results. Support for this sector is coordinated by the Ministry of Economy and Innovation. This sector is important for Lithuania economically and in terms of employment, so it is necessary to support the growth prospects of this sector, following the impact of the pandemic.

Lithuanian fishing vessels are quite old, the majority being over 26 years, according to Statistics Lithuania. Are there possibilities to get support to modernise the fleet to make them more fuel efficient and safer for the crews? What are Lithuanian policy-makers’ thoughts on this and is there understanding and support for the industry’s needs?

Balancing the fleet was one of the most important tasks facing both the previous political management and us. As in many EU countries, the long-distance fleet is profitable, balanced and successfully modernized through the EMFF and companies’ own resources. The balancing processes of the open Baltic Sea and the small-scale coastal fleet have been drastically affected by the ban on cod and the steadily declining quotas for other commercial fish species in the Baltic Sea, and we are now at a crossroad to find solutions that benefit fishermen and keep the fleet modern, more efficient, and safer.

Regulations on the ban on discards and the obligation to land all catches have been in force across the EU since 2019. What has been the impact on the Lithuanian fleet? How is compliance with these regulations monitored and has it led, as envisaged, to fewer discards? What has been the reaction from the fishing sector? And what happens to fish that is landed but that cannot be sold on consumer markets (e. g. undersized specimens)?

The discard ban and the landing obligation have slightly reduced the share of the fleet that fished only with bottom trawls. Trawlers which were using bottom trawls have started fishing exclusively with pelagic trawls. This is closely linked to the targeted ban on cod fishing that has entered into force. This has led to a significant reduction in unwanted by-catches. Cod by-catch in 2019 amounted to about 14.5 t, and in 2020 – just over 1 t.

Coastal fishing companies were not significantly affected (in terms of number of vessels) because most companies started using more selective gear, for example, fixed traps. In this way, unwanted by-catches were reduced—less cod is caught in traps. From the end of 2020 banning cod nets on the coast has further reduced cod by-catches. Fishermen have been quite successful in adapting to the discard ban, finding ways to largely avoid unwanted by-catches. If despite their efforts any fish is landed as by-catch it is sold for non-human food use i.e., for fishmeal or animal feed.

The Fisheries Service under the Ministry of Agriculture controls the sector to ensure the fulfilment of these obligations. Inspections are carried out both at sea and on shore, and other measures are also in place. For instance, a vessel inspected at sea must have the same data during the onshore inspection. Inspections are recorded with video recorders and sample composition analyses are performed to determine species composition. Fishing logbooks are checked and cross-checked through the Fisheries Data Information System.

What lies behind the proposal to stop the small-scale commercial fishery in the Curonian lagoon and in Baltic Sea coastal areas? How many fishers will it affect, and what will become of them and the communities they inhabit and serve?

I think it is too early to talk about the ban: so far only a draft law has been submitted to the Seimas (Parliament of Lithuania), which should go through all legislative procedures. Of course, during the deliberations, we will make our comments and suggestions to find a balance without prohibiting commercial fishing. With regard to possible restrictions on the Baltic Sea and its coastline, it must be borne in mind that the European Union has exclusive competence in this area and that any measures must be based on scientific advice regarding the state of fish stocks. Perhaps these are not large numbers – if we look at the number of companies that fish in the Curonian Lagoon and the coast – but the proposed bans would severely affect the Curonian Lagoon and coastal communities. The situation is ambiguous also because 2022 is the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture as announced by FAO to promote global recognition of this sector and its uniqueness. We need to prove the necessity of the survival of this business in Lithuania.

Aquaculture production in Lithuania has stayed fairly stable in the five years to 2019, according to FAO statistics, and production is dominated by common carp. What do you consider are the main challenges facing the sector and how does the administration intend to address them?

In Lithuania, the largest production volumes are grown in traditional carp pond farms, but modern RAS systems are gaining ground, both for fry growth and commercial production. African catfish, rainbow trout and other salmonids, eels, Siberian and Russian sturgeons and their hybrids, and pike are being grown in these systems. There are several start-ups in Lithuania who have started growing shrimps in RAS and are planning to increase the volume of production. However, the consumption of fish is determined primarily by habits. Consumers must get used to new species and products. Lithuania is a small country and the domestic consumer market is not large. Consumer surveys (both in the EU and in Lithuania) show that there are three main determinants of demand and consumption: quality, variety, and price. The price of fish is higher than the price of other animal proteins. However, technology and EMFF support for this sector can contribute to reducing costs, ensuring quality, and diversifying the range of aquaculture products. As consumer awareness increases, appreciation for more sustainable and high-quality products grows, so greater value addition will also contribute to diversifying supply and increasing the consumption of local products. We expect a significant increase in production from RAS until 2023, when the projects currently being implemented with the support of the EU will be completed and production will start. And by 2030, it is likely that aquaculture production in Lithuania will double, with the highest growth expected from RAS.

There is a new political team in place at the Ministry of Agriculture. In the fisheries and aquaculture sector what are the priorities of the new dispensation and how will the industry be affected by this change? What are the highlights of the new operational programme and how do they differ from the old one?

The approved programme of the government pays special attention to the sustainable development of aquaculture production. It is also expected to make a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal. However, it is important to mention that all Lithuanian fisheries sectors – fishing, aquaculture, processing are different and face various natural, geographical, economic, and social situations and challenges. The preparation and implementation of the Operational Programme for the Fisheries Sector for 2021–2027 aims to respond to these challenges, by developing synergies at the Baltic Sea Basin level, and focusing on actions that can be supported by the EMFAF. The programme also builds on the new Farm-to-Fork strategy for a fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly food system and on the EU Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to make biodiversity an integral part of the EU‘s overall economic growth strategy. Fishermen and aquaculture producers have an important role to play in the transition to a fairer and more sustainable food system. The implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the EMFAF will contribute to these efforts, while contributing to the socio-economic goals of fishermen (and their families) and aquaculture producers. The program aims to create flexible support systems to help move from a wide range of very specific small measures to more thorough action plans that can be used flexibly as circumstances change. This will be the main difference of the new programme.