Pelagic fishers support measures promoting sustainability

by Thomas Jensen

Croatia has a large fishing fleet, but three fourths of the vessels are small scale with a length of less than 12 m.

Croatia has been favoured with a long and attractive coastline made even longer by the over 1,200 Croatian islands that dot the sea just across from the mainland. Pleasant weather and attractive beaches make coastal Croatia a highly sought after destination for tourists in the summer months. Another big draw is the excellent fresh fish and seafood from the neighbouring Adriatic Sea.

Croatia has a diversified fisheries sector including wild caught fish and seafood, a farmed fish industry as well as a processing sector. Capture fisheries in Croatia are dominated by sardine and anchovy, but, as in many Mediterranean countries, wild catches include smaller volumes of a variety of fish, shellfish, and cephalopod species. To illustrate; in 2015 out of a total catch of just over 72,000 tonnes, less than 10,000 tonnes was divided over some 100 species, while the balance was made up of just two, sardines and anchovies. In addition to its wild catches, Croatia has a mariculture industry producing primarily seabass, seabream, and mussels as well as fattening tuna. On land, the species farmed include mainly rainbow trout and varieties of carp.

The Croatian fishing fleet comprises some 7,800 vessels with an average age of 35 years. Of these three fourths are small scale vessels less than 12 m in length. Trawlers number another 860 vessels almost all of which are less than 24 m. Purse seiners, long liners, and polyvalent vessels bigger than 12 m are the other significant fleet categories. Just under 6,000 people are estimated to be employed on fishing vessels in Croatia amounting to 0.31% of the total working population. The GFCM and the FAO in a 2016 publication on Mediterranean fisheries estimate that the average landing value per employee in Croatia was USD9,542 and per fishing vessel was USD17,323 placing Croatia around the middle of the list of GFCM members for both these measures.

Small pelagics are the basis of an important industry

Croatia’s small pelagic fishery in the north Adriatic has an ancient history and is the source of the raw materials for a processing industry that produces and exports conserves. Anchovy catches increased several fold (from 3,000 tonnes to 15,000 tonnes) between 1999 and 2011. Since then they have fallen – hovering around 9,000 tonnes in the three years to 2014, but increasing to 12,500 in 2015. According to the 2015 Annual Economic Report on the EU Fishing Fleet by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, small pelagics amount to over half the total value of the catch. In the last couple of years several measures have been taken to ensure the sustainability of the stock as part of a multiannual management plan for small pelagic fisheries in the Adriatic Sea adopted by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean. The plan seeks to maximise the long-term yield of small pelagic fisheries, reduce the risk of stock collapse, and maintain relatively stable catches. This will be achieved by limiting the exploitation rate, maintaining the mid-year spawning stock biomass (SSB) above a precautionary level, ensuring that the SSB does not fall below a certain limit, and finally restricting fishing capacity and fishing effort to 2011 levels.

Directorate of Fisheries
Croatian capture fisheries production in tonnes
  2013  2014   2015  
Pilchard  53,085  55,783  50,108
Anchovy  8,904  8,594  12,339
Bluefin tuna  389  385  456
Mixed small fish  4,667  5,812  1,012
Other species  1,347  1,166  1,219
Other fish   4,314  3,951  3,958
Spiny lobster  13  10  9
Norway lobster and other crustaceans  672  754  865
Oysters, mussels and other shellfish (edible and non-edible catch weigh)  475  808  980
Squid  391  407  275
Cuttlefish  189  207  192
Octopus and Cephalopods  783  1,010  846
Total  75,229   78,887   72,264  

The GFCM plan is a regional plan covering all the countries around the Mediterranean, says Ante Misura, Assistant Minister in the Directorate of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture, while the proposed EU plan will cover the three EU Member States, Croatia, Italy, and Slovenia. A proposal from the Commission is expected in autumn. We expect regionalisation to ensure that the plan will take into account the specificities of the Adriatic and we want the measures that we have introduced already to continue as we do not think it is effective to change the measures every year or every second year. We have reduced the size of the fleet by almost 50% from 450 to 250 vessels and expect to decrease it by a further 25-30%. Our goal is to balance the fishing capacity with the resource so that fishermen can live from their activity. The fishermen also realise that they need to adapt if they want to keep this fishery into the future as well. They too come up with proposals to relieve pressure on the stocks. However, the thing to keep in mind, says Mr Misura, is that the fishermen above all need a stable management regime and that before measures are made more stringent, their impact needs to be evaluated to know whether they actually work or not.

Ante Misura, Assistant Minister in the Directorate of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture, Croatia, says that measures to benefit stocks on their own will achieve little without effective control. The directorate has therefore placed VMS systems on 90% of the fleet including vessels of 8 m.

Series of measures protect small pelagics in the North Adriatic

We (Croatia) were among the first to introduce measures to protect pelagic stocks in the north Adriatic, points out Krstina Mislov Jelavic, the representative of the Fishing Affiliation within the Croatian Chamber of Economy and the focal point for Croatia in MEDAC, the Mediterranean Advisory Council. The first measure was a restriction of fishing to 180 days a year and 20 days a month. Fishing, not catching, she emphasises. The distinction is important as the rule applies irrespective as to whether there is any catch or not. A purse seiner can set out to sea and return with nothing and there are often days like that, but all these trips count towards the 180 days. The second measure concerned anchovies and specified that out of the 180 days anchovies could be targeted only 144 times. In 2015 a further restriction was introduced as a temporary measure; vessels had to stay in port for more than 70 days, in January, May, and half of December. December and January is the spawning season for sardines, while May is the spawning period for anchovies. Although these restrictions have been introduced in the framework of the GFCM and relate therefore to the fleets of all the three countries, Croatia, Italy, and Slovenia, fishing in the Adriatic, Croatia is the main producer of sardines and therefor voluntarily introduced the embargo on fishing during the sardine spawning period. This measure, says Dr Mislov, goes back to the beginning of the noughties when from 15 December to 15 January Croatian vessels do not catch sardines.

When the GFCM noticed a problem with anchovies it recommended a minimum period of 15 days during which vessels would stay in port. In Croatia, however, the decision was to extend this period for the whole month. In addition, for the last two years Croatia has closed 30% of its fishing grounds in inner sea areas, not because it is illegal to fish there, but because even though the anchovies are of commercial size, that is above 9 cm, if they are allowed to grow bigger their value per kilo increases. We therefore introduced these spatial restrictions and elected to fish in other areas where the fish are bigger relying on the higher price we can achieve to compensate for any reduction in volumes, explains Dr Mislov. At the same time, the fish in the inner areas can spawn and they become more attractive to catch the following year when they are that much bigger. Each year the areas with these smaller fish can change and the spatial closures are varied accordingly. Already now, two years after these voluntary restrictions were introduced, Krstina Mislov has seen the difference. This year (2016) in April we were catching big anchovies of 37-38 pieces per kilo, she notes.

The evidence that these measures work has persuaded Dr Mislov to support this type of plan within MEDAC and to urge the Commission to continue this type of measure in the belief that it will be sustainable for the stocks as well as for the fishermen. Ultimately these results will shape the EU regional management plan for small pelagics in the Adriatic Sea, the consultations for which have been ongoing for the last two years. Although there already exists a multiannual plan for small pelagics under the GFCM framework, the European Commission’s plan should be completely in accordance with the reformed CFP.

Krstina Mislov Jelavic, the representative of the Fishing Affiliation within the Croatian Chamber of Economy and the focal point for Croatia in MEDAC, the Mediterranean Advisory Council has argued for more stringent restrictions on fishing for small pelagics to protect the stock.

Measures mean little without effective control

The efficacy of the new regulations is ultimately determined by the extent to which they are obeyed and how effectively compliance is monitored. Ante Misura says that control is the most important. Without effective policing measure upon measure can be adopted but will not achieve anything as long as what the fishermen are doing is unknown. In Croatia, part of the control effort is the installation of Vessel Monitoring Systems on vessels down to 8 m in length. Ante Misura says that equipping 90% of the vessels with VMS and electronic logbooks, but leaving the rest without is not optimal. At the same time installing the system on such small boats is hardly appropriate, as many of the fishers are unfamiliar with the technology and have to learn how to use it, which can be a challenge. Within a few months all purse seiners, trawlers, and dredgers representing 95% of the catch will be equipped with these systems. The remaining vessels, those using gill nets and traps etc., which number some 2,500 vessels, are too small.

Placing this equipment on board all these vessels has been highly demanding as the directorate has been heavily involved with the physical installation, the training, support, the liaison with the company that is providing the service, developing the
databases, etc. It is not made easier as the system has to respond to constantly changing requirements from the directorate, the EU, the GFCM, ICCAT, Eurostat. The important thing is that this will help us to achieve our goal of a sustainable fishery, says Mr Misura, an objective which is shared by the Commission and is in the interests of our fishermen. But this has to achieved gradually with the support of all the stakeholders or the socioeconomic impact will be unacceptable. The directorate is also interested in Croatian fisheries being certified to a sustainability standard and sees the new VMS systems and the implementation of the regional plan currently being discussed as steps that will facilitate compliance with the requirements of such a standard.

Improved port and landing site infrastructure by 2020


The Common Fisheries Policy introduced a landing obligation to reduce the levels of unwanted catches and to gradually eliminate discards. The landing obligation and the ban on discards are being phased in gradually depending on the fishery. In the case of small pelagics the cut-off date to introduce the landing obligation was the start of 2015. Discards may not be used for human consumption, so the alternatives are to use it for fishmeal and fish oil or for pet feed. MEDAC’s joint recommendations on discard management plans issued in June 2016 note that Croatia currently has only one approved facility for processing by-products for non-direct human consumption and one plant for producing pet food. They are both located in the continental part of Croatia at a considerable distance from the landing ports. The recommendations point out that on landing sites there is no infrastructure for collection of discarded catch, therefore it has to be transported to a collection facility or to approved processing facilities. In Croatia there is no industry close to the main ports that can accept discarded catches and due to limited space at the landing sites there is no possibility to plan any additional facilities for the storage of discarded catch. This, however, is likely to change over the next three to four years, says Mr Misura, as Croatia will reconstruct its landing sites so that there will be 8–10 fishing harbours extending from Pula in the north to Dubrovnik, and about 50 landing places down from over 200. The work is expected to conclude in 2020 as some of the fishing harbours already have the documentation to start building, while the rest are half way there. The reconstructed sites will have all the facilities necessary for the fishers to land the fish, something that has been an issue for the last couple of decades, and will also be able to collect discards.

Unwanted catches are in fact not a problem in the Croatian small pelagic fishery, where researchers have estimated that discards are almost non-existent. The rebuilt harbours will also solve the problem of what to do with the vessels when they are not fishing as there will now be enough space for them to berth during the closed seasons. These positive developments are partly due to the support from the local port authorities and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, Transport, and Infrastructure that can see the benefits of having proper landing facilities. These include shorter handling times and therefore higher prices for the catch. Another development that the Directorate of fisheries is supporting is the establishment of wholesale markets. Here however, Mr Misura would like the fishing cooperatives to take the lead as they stand to benefit the most from well-functioning wholesale markets that take care of the documentation, the marketing etc., which should also result in a better price.

Processing anchovies and sardines for markets in Spain and Italy

Salting anchovies is one of the most popular ways of processing this species as it is highly demanded product on markets in Spain and Italy. However, the salting process is a long one taking four to six months and the trick is to time the availability of the product with the demand on the market. Fortunately, the maturing process can be slowed down or accelerated by the judicious adjustment of temperature, which enables some flexibility regarding when the product is ready. The issue is essentially that Croatian catches of anchovy, although not insignificant at somewhere between 9 and 15 thousand tonnes a year, are only a fraction of total catches of European anchovy (271 thousand tonnes in 2014) and are barely visible in comparison to global Peruvian anchovy catches (3.14m tonnes). As a result, Croatian catches have little or no influence on the market; on the contrary Mediterranean catches of anchovy in Spain, Morocco, and in the south of Italy near Sicily have a marked impact on Croatia. Catches in Argentina, Chile, Peru or China, although very different from the fish found in the Mediterranean, can to some extent, also affect the price of anchovies in Croatia. Processors here acknowledge that the fact that the final market mainly in Spain and Italy means they have to adapt to the situation.

Croatia does however have some advantages when it comes to the anchovy that the domestic fleet catches in the Adriatic. According to Dr Neven Bosnic, a consultant for the industry, the Adriatic has some unique characteristics including the ratio of salinity to temperature. It is possibly the only sea in the world with an average temperature of 19 degrees centigrade and a salinity of 38 g/L. This gives a certain microclimatic situation in the Adriatic that is responsible for the special taste of the fish. A taste that is recognised on the Italian and Spanish markets and that has brought outside investors to Croatia.

Secondary processing offshored to Albania

The importance of manual labour in the processing of anchovies and sardines has pushed several companies to seek countries where labour costs are lower. The major beneficiary of this offshoring is Albania as it has not only attracted activities from Croatia, but also from north Africa following all the political disturbances there. This has meant that Albania has become a centre for the secondary processing of salted anchovies which are then exported to European countries. For Croatian companies too this is an advantage as Albania is only a few hours away by road and the lower labour costs more than compensate for the additional transport. Marinated anchovies on the other hand have a shorter shelf life and the processing will mainly remain in Croatia, says Dr Bosnic. Croatia has the advantage of being close to the fishing grounds giving a high quality raw material and century-long expertise in salting anchovies. So the distribution of labour – the catching and primary processing in Croatia and the secondary processing in Albania – caters to the strengths of both countries. Dr Bosnic estimates that about 50% of the anchovies salted in Croatia pass through Albania on their way to their final markets in Spain and Italy.

Directorate of Fisheries
Aquaculture production by species
    2013 2014 2015
Species  Weight (t)
Fish Sea bass  2,826,00  3,214,72  4,488,39
Sea bream  2,978,00  3,654,58  4,074,79
Bluefin tuna  2,616,00  2,223,76  2,603,36
Other  64,00  120,89  77,93
Total  8,484,00  9,213,94  11,244,47
Shellfish Oyster  50,00  32,16  52,08
Mussel  1,950,00  713,84  746,38
Other shellfish  –  –  0,02
Total  2,000,00  746,01  798,48
TOTAL  10,848,00      9,959,95      12,042,95    
Quantity (individuals)
Spawn Sea bass  5,125,565,00  969,000,00  1,070,000,00
Sea bream  2,542,800,00  –  –
Bluefin tuna  472,128,00  –  –
Other  8,140,493,00  969,000,00  1,070,000,00

Tuna fattening earns valuable foreign exchange

Another important part of the Croatian fisheries sector is the tuna fattening industry. This relies on catching tuna from the wild and storing it in sea cages, where the fish are fed till they reach a certain weight at which point they are harvested slaughtered processed and transported to Japan, the market for almost all the tuna that is fattened in the Mediterranean. So particular are the Japanese about the fish that they often supervise the harvesting and slaughtering operation and freeze and store the fish aboard their own vessels at minus 60 degrees centigrade to completely preserve the quality of the fish till it reaches its destination. Within the EU eight nations are involved in tuna fattening, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Cyprus. Tuna has been highly overfished for many years resulting in warnings that the stock was on the verge of collapse. This prompted the body in charge of managing the fishery, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), to adopt in 2006 a 15-year recovery plan for bluefin tuna in the East Atlantic and Mediterranean. The plan which has been reinforced subsequently goes hand in hand with a strict control system run by the EU. The complex of measures includes inspectors, control vessels, and aircraft, electronic catch documents, and cameras to monitor fish transfers. The result has been that stocks of bluefin tuna have started to recover to the extent that in 2014 ICCAT endorsed a 20% increase in the bluefin TAC for each of the following three years, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Croatia has the fourth largest tuna quota in the EU after the big three, Spain, France and Italy, at 461 tonnes in 2015 and 553 tonnes in 2016. Although, the different measures implemented combined with the tightened control systems have been effective, there are practical issues that need to be overcome, says Mr Misura. The new electronic systems including the electronic bluefin tuna catch documents are maintained by a private company that is on call 24/7. But, as Mr Misura points out, tuna vessels are away at sea for one month in the year and if something on board breaks down then, it poses a challenge. Tuna production in 2015 at 2,600 tonnes has returned to the level of 2013 after falling to 2,200 tonnes in 2014. In 2016 the volume is likely to go up as a result of the higher catch quotas in 2015, which will contribute to higher farmed volumes. Croatia, like other countries with an interest in tuna, is also making efforts to close the tuna breeding cycle, that is growing tuna from eggs. So far this has been done in Japan and producers there are growing fish that has been hatched in a laboratory. In Croatia companies farming tuna are reportedly sending the eggs to research laboratories in different parts of the world for experimental purposes. Within Croatia hatcheries have mentioned the possibility of collaborating with tuna farmers for this purpose too. The value of tuna as a proportion of the value produced by the entire mariculture sector is immense, amounting to almost 50% in 2012 and the government is keen to increase this. The national strategic plan for aquaculture 2014-2020 envisages increasing the production of tuna to 3,000 tonnes by 2020 subject to the availability of quotas.

Seabass, seabream produc
tion set to exceed targets

Tuna however is only part of the mariculture industry in Croatia which also includes the production of seabass and seabream and the cultivation of mussels and a small volume of oysters. Croatia was one of the pioneers in the farming of seabass and seabream in the Mediterranean though a combination of circumstances saw Croatian production overtaken by other countries in the region. Over the last couple of years, production of both seabass and seabream has increased and stands at just under 8,600 tonnes in 2015 up from 5,200 tonnes in 2010. This production is based on hatching eggs to raise larvae and growing them to fry in hatcheries after which they are placed in cages in the sea. The biggest producer of seabass and seabream in Croatia has recently restructured and renovated its hatchery. When production capacity is reached this facility will be among the biggest producers of seabass and seabream fry in the world. Other on-growing farms source the fry either from other local hatcheries or from producers outside Croatia usually in Italy or France. Feed for the fish is also imported as current production volumes are insufficient to attract manufacturers to establish production facilities in Croatia. Despite these constraints production is likely to exceed the target as laid out in the National Aquaculture Plan of 10,000 tonnes by 2020. Mussel production was 750 tonnes in 2015, while oysters amounted to some 50 tonnes.

Clear land rights and EMFF support should boost freshwater farming

Directorate of Fisheries
Freshwater aquaculture production in tonnes
2013 2014 2015
Carp  2,099,92  2,284,05  3,401,00
Wels Catfish  34,86  37,84  47,65
Amur  209,48  288,29  131,61
Carp (silver and bighead)  429,77  712,91  469,31
Trout  350,36  378,38  679,13
Other fish  110,60  106,36  103,69
Total 3,234,99  3,807,83 4,832,40

The freshwater aquaculture industry in Croatia has traditionally been farming carps in earthen ponds. Responding to new opportunities and changes in tastes Croatian farmers have diversified into the production of rainbow trout in ponds, production of which has almost doubled to 680 tonnes in the two years to 2015. Of the other species produced common carp dominates amounting to between 55% and 70% of the total between 2013 and 2015. The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) should increase production from aquaculture as producers have shown a keen interest in the opportunities it offers, says Ante Misura. Progress has also been made in other areas, for example, the title to the land. Farmers often did not have concessions to the land, which made it difficult to use it as collateral when taking a loan. Now, however, almost all farmers have a long term concession and can use this as security when they approach lenders, which should lead to a gradual increase in production. While most of the investment is expected in semi-intensive systems, there is scope also for producers interested in recirculation systems.

Access to the EMFF are among the benefits Croatia enjoys as a member of the EU, a status it has held since 2013, following a decade-long effort. Referring to the fisheries chapter of the acquis (body of EU legislation) Mr Misura says the country took its obligations very seriously making the actual accession somewhat easier. At the time the EU itself was going through significant changes, a new Commission was being appointed, the Common Fisheries Policy was being comprehensively reformed, the funding structure was changing as were information systems, none of which made accession any easier. Other countries looking to join the EU should find it easier, thinks Mr Misura, but my recommendation would be that they fulfill all their obligations to make sure they are completely ready for accession, when it happens. The pay-off is that as a member your voice carries weight, you can call on assistance, and challenges are addressed together.

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