MAHOP Plusz (Hungarian Fish Operational Programme Plus) supports sustainable aquaculture
The goal of MAHOP Plusz is to support micro, small, and medium-size enterprises in ways that increase the competitiveness and sustainability of their fish production and processing. The goal is to increase innovation and digitalization while also reducing environmental impact. An important aspect is to support climate- and environment-friendly farming methods, increase the number of production systems which are based on the principles of circular farming, and maintain and develop the biodiversity of water and wetland habitats.
The fish farming sector includes fish production from pond farms and recirculation aquaculture systems, fish processing, and management activities related to the utilisation of natural waters for recreational fishing. The main task of Hungarian fish farming is to supply consumers with healthy and safe aquaculture products, but also to contribute to job creation and the preservation of traditions.
Priorities and their main target areas for support
Hungarian fish farms usually undertake all the stages of fish production, from fry rearing to table fish production, by themselves. As the main supplier of fish, the aquaculture sector supports food security in Hungary and provides stocking material to restock natural waters and recreational fishing ponds. As wild marine stocks dwindle, demand for healthy fish protein can increasingly be satisfied from aquaculture. To realise this, Hungary plans for an economically and environmentally sustainable expansion of production capacities by renovating and modernising existing aquaculture farms, and by creating and deploying innovative solutions.
In Hungary, pond fish farmers are trying to increase their production capacity by restoring ageing fishpond infrastructure instead of creating new ponds, which require high levels of investment and offer slow returns. In 2019, operating pond area was 27,056 hectares, 29 hectares of new fishponds were established, and 206 hectares of pond area were restored. Considering this, the primary goal is to expand the production of existing farms instead of increasing the pond area. Expanding the scope of activities of pond fish producers and reducing production costs by upgrading technology is critical to increase stability and enhance the income-generating capacity of the fish farming sector. Production processes rely too much on manual labour and technical efficiency is low. Investments that aim to develop and improve pond management by modernising obsolete infrastructure contribute to improve the health and well-being of fish leading to higher product quality and food safety and reduced need for pharmaceuticals. Under MAHOP Plusz, in accordance with the relevant directives on habitat and bird protection, the purchase of devices that aim to protect fish farms from predators will also be supported as this too contributes to improved health and well-being. Innovation can contribute to improving fish welfare, eliminating the use of antibiotics, and achieving environmental protection objectives, and will be supported.
Introducing new species and developing innovative production technologies
It is important to introduce new species that are competitive on the European export market into aquaculture production, as well as to develop new production technologies to improve the supply of fish products. MAHOP Plusz provides support to companies to expand their range of species and to diversify, intensify and develop the necessary production technology, as demand for more valuable predatory fish is higher than for herbivorous species. Thanks to MAHOP Plusz support, producers can diversify their production to satisfy the growing and changing consumer needs, as well as the needs of the growing number of recreational anglers. A significant increase in the proportion of fish pond areas with ecological certification is not a realistic goal until the share of consumers willing to pay a higher price for these products can be increased. However, MAHOP Plusz supports the production of organic fish and wants to achieve this with an increase in the proportion of fishpond areas certified to organic standards.
It is important to emphasise that the intensification to be achieved does not simply mean a higher volume of production, which would automatically bring with it a greater environmental impact, but a higher yield achieved with innovative solutions and/or a similar yield achieved at a lower cost (including a lower environmental impact). Many pond fish producers, especially the smaller ones, do not have fish storage facilities of sufficient quantity and capacity for their fish. For this reason, during the autumn catch, part of the fish caught is sold immediately, mostly live, at dumping prices which makes these producers vulnerable to traders. MAHOP Plusz also supports initiatives that aim to deliver aquaculture products to consumers more efficiently, for example, by establishing fish shops, mobile sales, or by investing in suitable transport equipment.
Use of renewable energy to mitigate the sector’s environmental impact
In many cases, sustainability and climate neutrality goals are related. Hungary can improve the environmental sustainability of domestic aquaculture systems by developing sustainable and low carbon footprint fish production technologies based on the use of renewable energy sources. With this in mind, investments in sustainable fuels will be supported. Besides the development of existing businesses, MAHOP Plusz plans to put more emphasis on supporting activities connected to the main activity of fish production, and the role of fish ponds in maintaining nature value. In Hungary, the primary form of fish production is semi-intensive pond fish farming, which, in addition to creating job opportunities and sustaining traditions, can also be considered close to nature. The spread of a multifunctional fish farming concept can also play a role in the social acceptance of pond aquaculture. By opening pond farms to visitors and by offering tourist services related to fish farming (fishing tourism, eco-tourism, gastro-tourism, etc.), fish farming comes closer to people who will better understand and accept the farmer’s activity. One of the main purposes of MAHOP Plusz is to assist pond fish producers to diversify their activities, i.e. to increase the number of multifunctional pond farms.
In the maintenance of biological diversity European pond farmers preserve and enrich valuable water and aquatic ecosystems thanks to their pond management techniques and the use of combined intensive-extensive systems. Here the minimisation of harmful environmental effects is a priority, which is primarily managed by the establishment, renovation, and modernisation of fish ponds. Well-managed fish farms can also help to adapt to climate change. Due to the microclimate created by fishponds, annual temperature fluctuations are smaller, thus the expansion and maintenance of fishpond systems could be a suitable tool to mitigate the local effects of extreme weather conditions and climate change. There are several options to retain excess water, additionally, extensive fish ponds can also function as water purification facilities. Pond systems are able to improve chemical parameters of water used in fish farming by removing certain pollutants (mainly nutrients) present in the water. In view of this, investments for fish-producing enterprises/companies which are able to reduce negative impacts on water utilization and water quality, particularly investments that are able to reduce the amount of water, chemicals, antibiotics, and other medicines that are used, and improve the quality of discharge water (e.g. multitrophic aquaculture systems) will be supported by MAHOP Plusz.
Intensive-extensive cultivation offers the best of both worlds
Climate neutrality efforts are supported by freshwater aquaculture, especially through pond management and the use of combined intensive-extensive systems. An important aspect of the development of such systems is to increase resilience against the effects of climate change. To develop domestic aquaculture, construction, development, and wide distribution of innovative, combined fish production systems is important. These are able to efficiently combine the profitability of intensive systems with the environmental sustainability of pond farming systems. MAHOP Plusz therefore aims to support the use of combined intensive-extensive fish production systems in Hungarian aquaculture. All subsidised aquaculture investments must fully comply with the EU environmental protection regulations, with a particular focus on avoiding the negative environmental impacts of intensive aquaculture facilities, including impacts on protected species and habitats.
Production of the aquaculture sector has been increasing worldwide, but in Europe it has been stagnant for years. The EU is a net importer of aquaculture products. A possibility to reduce import dependence is to increase the volume of fish produced in Europe which could be done by boosting intensive cultivation. In 2019 in Hungary 21 companies operated intensive fish production plants/systems at 23 sites/premises. Hungary has excellent capacities for intensive production, including the availability of geothermal waters and waste heat sources, which are able to cover part of the water demand and part of the heat demand of fish production. As geothermal resources provide a competitive advantage, the share of intensive aquaculture in Hungarian food fish production is constantly increasing. MAHOP Plusz intends to support investments aimed at using geothermal resources and circular farming solutions. The aim is to support the establishment of intensive fish production plants where it is possible to produce several species of fish with minimal environmental impact. Such systems can more simply adapt to changes in market demand, thus enabling a continuous supply of fish. In the case of intensive fish farming, the organic matter load of the wastewater of the flow-through water systems is exceptionally high, so a primary aim is to support projects that focus on water purification and the recycling of utilised water. Support is also available for recirculating fish production. Such plants can be established in many places, require little land and water supply, can be adapted to the production of many fish species and are able to ensure a continuous supply of fish. In addition, the amount of waste water and the environmental impact of recirculation systems is minimal.
Better working conditions may attract more people to the sector
MAHOP Plusz supports investments in work safety, hygiene, health, and physical infrastructure that are able to improve working conditions. In 2019, a total of 1,246 people were employed full-time in pond farms and intensive aquaculture systems. The objective is to increase the number of people employed in fish farming not only by supporting the start-up of new businesses, but also by expanding staff numbers at existing businesses. To achieve this the improvement of working conditions is essential to make them more attractive.
The area of fish pond farming in Hungary is 27,056 (2019) hectares, which is a considerable area both for nature conservation and water management. The fish ponds are sources of high biodiversity and offer numerous valuable ecological services. Several Hungarian pond farms are located in protected or NATURA 2000 areas, as many species covered by habitat protection and bird protection directives are associated with fish ponds at certain stages of their life cycle or even during their entire life, e.g. utilising them as living, hiding, breeding or feeding places. The presence of such species often causes damage. The target for 2029 for areas managed by operations promoting good environmental status and the aim to protect, preserve, and restore biodiversity and ecosystems is 150 km2. In the extensive and semi-intensive production methods mostly used in fish production, agro-chemicals, and energy-intensive inputs only have a minor role, production processes are not very mechanised, and resources for fish production are used in an environmentally friendly way. There is a real risk that producers abandon fish production in ponds that maintain significant ecological values and switch to more intensive production methods or other forms of management in search of greater economic profit. This may result in a large loss of biodiversity and a significant decline in the level of ecological services. MAHOP Plusz aims to support production methods that are able to maintain wetlands as well as improve the resilience of the sector, increase biodiversity, and reduce the effects of climate change.
Recreational fishing contributes to healthier habitats
Since 1 January 2016, when commercial fishing in inland waters was forbidden, fisheries management in natural waters has been through recreational fishing. Hungarian fishery legislations places obligations on the recreational fishing community to collect garbage at fishing sites before starting to fish. Failure to do so will result in sanctions, meaning that the recreational fishing community directly contributes to reducing plastic pollution in waters and at waterfronts. In 2020, there were 2,660 registered water areas for fish management totalling 172,297 hectares. By protecting and strengthening native fish stocks and protecting habitats, fisheries management contributes to the improvement of the environmental condition of stagnant waters and watercourses. The goal for 2029 is the rehabilitation of an approximate area of 600 hectares by implementing 24 measures. MAHOP Plusz supports science-based fisheries management practices, such as those aimed at protecting and developing habitats in natural waters and ensuring the migration route of migratory fish. In addition, the aim is to support recreational activities, selective fishing for ecological purposes aimed at catching non-native invasive species, and fishing for demonstration purposes.
MAHOP Plusz, the Hungarian fish operational programme plus, aims to increase the resilience and sustainability of pond fish farming and to exploit the ecosystem services the sector provides to create a more profitable and attractive industry for entrepreneurs, employees, and consumers alike.
Klára Szűcs Szathmáriné
Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture