Climate change a key challenge for Croatian fisheries and aquaculture

by Thomas Jensen
Croatian Minister Vuckovic

Innovative solutions necessary to build resilience

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 4 2022

Marija Vučković, the Croatian Minister of Agriculture, has held her position since 2019. An economist by training, Ms Vučković has been active in politics since 2006. At the Ministry of Agriculture her brief includes agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and rural development all of which present their own challenges. Croatian fisheries and aquaculture, like the sector in other countries, has to contend with increasing prices, climate change, the war in Ukraine, and market disturbances brought on by the pandemic, among other issues. Ms Vučković indicates here the priorities of her ministry within fisheries and aquaculture and points to some of the positive trends in the sector.

You have been the Croatian Minister of Agriculture since 2019. This position encompasses a number of responsibilities including fisheries and aquaculture. What do you consider the main challenges and opportunities in the Croatian fisheries and aquaculture sector since your appointment?

We live in challenging times and operate in market disruptions as never seen before. We are fully aware of the current demanding circumstances and difficult situation faced by the fisheries and aquaculture sector through the increase in total costs, including energy costs. Precisely for this reason, and in order to mitigate the economic and social negative effects on Croatian fisheries and aquaculture sector, as well as to financially help, we implemented a number of measures intended for entrepreneurs in the fishing and aquaculture sector, including all sub-sectors of production and commercial fishing at sea, freshwater aquaculture and mariculture. However, the general indicators in Croatian fisheries and aquaculture sector continue to show positive trends – despite the mentioned market disturbances and the fact that the past few years were marked by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are recording a positive trend in the foreign trade balance of fishery products in terms of quantity, and especially in the value of exports. Comparing 2021 and 2019, exports increased in value by 31%. Compared to 2016, production in aquaculture increased by as much as 53% in quantity and 45% in value.

From the aspect of resource management, our main challenge remains stopping and reversing the negative trends with respect to the status of the stocks. The Mediterranean Sea is facing a serious situation from this aspect and we are dedicated to continue our efforts at all levels to gradually reach the desired results. On a sub-regional level, in the Adriatic Sea, the evidence are there proving that we are on the right track with the GFCM multiannual plans in place for the dominant fisheries. Following the GFCM multiannual plan for demersal fisheries adopted in 2019, it seems that the persisting decline of demersal stocks has been stopped and encouraging signals are there particularly in terms of decreasing the fishing mortality and increase of the biomass. In the small pelagic fishery sector, there is a new and ambitious GFCM multiannual plan adopted last year and the focus is now on improving the scientific work as the fundamental precondition for successful implementation of the multiannual plan.

In addition, the reconciliation of the Common Fisheries Policy objectives against the objectives from the aspect of the biodiversity protection surely present both, a challenge and an opportunity. The ambitious goal of reaching 30% of the marine area protected by 2030, 1/3 of which strictly, is a target without precedent. However, it is expected that eventually, the positive results of such an approach will be substantially reflected also in fisheries. Having said this, I only need to reaffirm our strong dedication to reaching the goals set and express our hope that the whole process will be built upon national inter-sectorial consensus and a strong regional cooperation.

However, among the key challenges that Croatian fisheries and aquaculture will face in the forthcoming period is climate change. Extreme weather events are affecting the abundance and distribution of fisheries resources and the suitability of some geographical locations for aquaculture systems. The increased variability in levels of precipitation and changes in air and water temperatures will affect the productivity of rivers, lakes and floodplains. These are some of our main concerns today. For that reason, we have developed National Aquaculture Development Plan with goals, activities and interventions that includes climate change perspective and aims at strengthening the resilience of the entire aquaculture sector and mitigating climate change by applying innovative technologies that contribute to the vision of low-carbon ­development.

We are also aware that market potential that we have is still not fully used and we intend to work continuously on increasing consumption of fisheries and aquaculture products by using promotion campaigns and support measures that will contribute to the product recognition on the market.

The newly established European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) for the period from 2021 to 2027 is key to ensuring the proper implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy. What is the status of the operational program for Croatia, what priorities and objectives will it be targeting, and who will be the potential beneficiaries?

The Croatian EMFAF Programme strategy is aimed at encouraging transition to sustainable fisheries, including achievement of sustainable level of fish stocks, reduction of unwanted catches, mitigation of climate change and mitigation and elimination as much as possible the risks triggered by climate change (climate change adaptation) and strengthening the competitiveness and profitability of the sector. Together with sustainable fishing and aquaculture, aim is to foster the establishment of efficient and well-organized markets, to encourage the consumption of fishery and aquaculture products and the activities of producer organizations. We plan to continue with necessary infrastructure investments, investments in fishing ports and landing sites, aquaculture facilities and processing facilities.

Also, one of the challenges we want to address with the Program is to foster the development of very sensitive local communities, especially those dependent on fisheries and aquaculture. In 2014-2020 programming period, we have established FLAGs which have become one of the important partners in the local community and which implement praiseworthy projects for their local communities in order to develop them. We want to continue this trend and further strengthen their status and their results.

In addition to the planned activities aimed primarily at the implementation of the CFP, we also envisage measures intended for environmental and nature protection, which are very important, especially protection of the marine environment. As far as the status of the Program, it is in the process of being formally submitted to the Commission, following the submission of Croatian Partnership Agreement, which is a precondition for submission of all programmes.

What impact has the soaring cost of energy had on Croatian fisheries and aquaculture and has the ministry implemented measures to mitigate these effects?

The increase in fuel prices has greatly affected fishermen and farmer’s cost and consequently there has been an increase in the prices of fishery and aquaculture products. Nevertheless, increase in product prices can not compensate the energy cost and cannot ensure survival, less alone profitability of the fishermen. In addition, producers (processors) and HORECA sector are turning to importing cheaper fish. In order to mitigate negative economic and social effects on the fisheries sector and to financially support the sector, primarily in terms of providing liquidity for further business operations and preserving jobs, the Ministry of Agriculture is continuously working on finding the most appropriate solutions and responses to this very difficult situation which sector is facing with.


Till now, we have implemented several support measures, which were available for fisheries and aquaculture sector taking into account the possibilities provided by the EU regulation. Such support was available for undertakings acting in fisheries, aquaculture and processing sector as a state aid – both de minimis and notified state aid scheme, where support was granted for income foregone and/or additional business costs caused by extraordinary events. Due to the consequences of the pandemic that the fisheries sector is dealing with, a total of HRK 272 million (EUR 36m) in support was paid to strengthen the resilience and sustainability of our fishermen and producers in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. With these measures, a temporary suspension of fishing was made possible, compensation was paid to reduce the value of sales, but we also ensured liquidity for further operations and job preservation through HRK 23 million in support that was used by more than 800 entrepreneurs.

In addition, we are now preparing for the implementation of specific support measures introduced in the framework of EU funds, namely the new European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund for 2021-2027 period but hopefully also under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund for 2014-202 period for which amendments of the Regulation (EU) No 508/2014 are currently under co-legislative procedure at EU level. Such specific measures are aimed at mitigating the negative effects, in particular market disturbances in fisheries and aquaculture sector, caused by Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Similar as it was the case for COVID-19 crisis, this mechanism enables EU support in the form of compensation for additional costs and/or income foregone due to market disruptions and negative effects in supply chains.

What are the risks that marine protected areas and the use of sea-based windmill parks or other renewable energy sources will reduce the area available to Croatian fishers to ply their trade? Does the administration envisage ways of compensating fishers for the loss of their fishing grounds?

As already mentioned, designation of protected areas does not have to be perceived as an activity in conflict with fishing and Marine protected areas represent the repositories of biodiversity and provide for the conservation of the entire ecosystems within the protected area, but outside as well. Let me remind you of the Jabuka Fisheries Restricted Area (FRA) example which proved to be a surprisingly successful one. The secret of its success lies in the fact that the area is precisely targeted as one of the most important spawning and nursery areas in the Adriatic basin. Also, the important factor was that the initiative was strongly supported at all levels – scientific, administrative and sectorial. The particular task of reaching the consensus around the idea which is not expected to yield immediate and direct result that can be positively reflected in fisheries needs to be strongly argued and based upon a robust set of scientific proofs. It takes significant effort and consumes a lot of time, but the unanimous support is the only guarantee of the success. Not long after the establishment of the Jabuka FRA, scientists started noticing positive trends with regards to the quantitative and qualitative composition of the catches but also the undoubtful recovery of the entire ecosystems, within the protected zone with the spill-over effect to wider surrounding area, where fishermen witness significantly better catches. Now, already 4 years after the continuous implementation of the protection regime in the Jabuka Pit, the positive trends persist and we hope that in the future it will be safe to claim that this measure was a turning point in the overall status of demersal stocks at the basin level.

Jabuka Pit FRA, as of the last year recognised at the GFCM level as a permanent regime, is beyond any doubt the example of how it is possible to strike the right balance between the need for protection and the responsibility towards the status of the biological resources on one side, and the responsibility towards the survival of the fisheries sector, on the other. This particular example demonstrates that scientifically based and precisely targeted measures can yield effects beyond expectations, regardless of the mere size of the area protected.

As for the issue of the sea-based windmill parks, this topic, under the circumstances, surely deserves serious consideration and in depth inter-sectorial consultations. With this in mind, the proclamation of the Exclusive economic zone last year, indeed marked a beginning of a new era and opened space for new opportunities for development also in the sector of renewable energy sources.

Remote electronic monitoring by placing cameras on board fishing vessels is being tried in different European fleets as a way of controlling fishing behaviour. Many fishers feel that the presence of cameras is a violation of their privacy. Are any trials being conducted in Croatia? What is the view of the administration on the use of this technology?

REM (Remote electronic monitoring) with cameras on board is still not implemented on Croatian fishing vessels. However, the proposed amendments to the Control Regulation have been discussed for a long time, the obligation for REM installation with CCTV (on-board cameras) should be compulsory for a “minimum percentage” of vessels which have been identified as “posing a serious risk of non-compliance” with Landing obligation. The fact is that it is very difficult to control the landing obligation and that the use of REM could be one of the possibilities and also interactions with marine mammal bycatch and can provide more complete fisheries data. This data can be used for decision-making regarding fisheries management and protection measures.

We are witnessing the increased use of CCTV in everyday life such as traffic, shops, public institutions and space and we do not see a problem that they are applied on fishing vessels, but with clear criteria and the obligation in respect of the privacy with data collected in accordance with GDPR. According above mentioned, we expect from EC the implementing act with detailed rules on requirements, technical specifications, installation, maintenance and functioning of the REM system and the period for which the REM system has to be implemented. Those rules need to ensure that CCTV footage, if used, should only concern the gear and the parts of the vessel where fishery products are brought on board, handled, stored and discarded.

Climate change is already having an impact on the cultivation of fish in earthen ponds as water temperatures increase and rainfall gets more erratic. Production in the sea could also be affected by higher temperatures, acidification, lower levels of oxygen, and algal blooms. How do you see the aquaculture sector developing in Croatia given these negative impacts?

As already mentioned in the introduction, climate change is one of the key challenges in the coming period, and the ministry’s planning documents define a number of measures to assess the possible impact of climate change and emphasize the importance of implementing necessary measures to adapt to and production practices to improve the system for collecting and making available climate change data by establishing a single platform for all relevant stakeholders. This will encourage projects aimed at investing in environmentally sustainable intensification of aquaculture production systems, such as recirculation systems, which provide controlled breeding conditions with shorter production cycles while ensuring safe product and resilience to climate change.

In order to alleviate the existing problem with insufficient water in freshwater ponds, activities were undertaken to ensure as much water as possible in rainy periods by encouraging the arrangement of supply channels and accumulation of excess water and by investing in the reconstruction of existing embankments in fishponds. As for mariculture, so far, according to production data, which still have a growing trend, it can be concluded that farmers are coping well with climate change. As a result of climate change, new predatory species have emerged that are damaging white fish farms, and regular cage inspections and the establishment of stronger nets were needed for maintained water circulation by regularly cleaning the nets on the cages.

Although per capita consumption of fish in Croatia is respectable, it is below the EU average despite the country’s long coastline and hundreds of islands. Given the benefits of eating fish what efforts is the ministry making to encourage the consumption of fish and seafood in Croatia?

Apparent consumption of fishery and aquaculture products per capita in the Republic of Croatia amounted to 19.30 kg per capita in 2020, while in 2019 it amounted to 20.02 kg per capita and in 2018 to 18.06 kg. These are the numbers from research conducted by Ministry of Agriculture and the outputs are very similar to those made by EUMOFA (19,19 kg per capita in 2018 and 20,82 in 2019, 2020 is not yet included). In 2020, we recorded a slight decrease in visible consumption compared to 2019 by almost 4%. The main reasons for this result lie in a number of factors, the most important of which is the increase in raw material input to processing facilities due to higher demand for canned products and the fact that the HORECA sector was partially closed, both caused by COVID-19 pandemic measures. The average per capita apparent consumption in EU countries is 23,97 kg per capita which puts Croatia a little below average but right in the middle of the scale. To our opinion, this is not a bad result. Given the availability of our marine and land resources in combination with strategic activities aimed at increasing the production and processing of fishery and especially aquaculture products, our assumption is that the consumption of fishery products in the coming period should continue to grow, especially with intensified marketing activities and the encouragement of short cold supply chains with the creation of a producer organization that will more easily than individuals place larger quantities of products on the market.

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