Pond fish farming in Poland, a century-old activity, is adapting to changes at many levels

by Thomas Jensen
EM6 20 PL

New product forms respond to market demands

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 6 / 2020.

Alterations in climate patterns, developments in the market for carp products, and shifts in consumer profiles are all having an impact on the way carp is produced and sold in Poland.

Pond fish farming in Poland dates back to at least the 12th century, when monks produced fish in earthen ponds. Over the next 500 years ponds were built that varied in size from 100 ha to 1,000 ha. The biggest ponds were subsequently divided into smaller, more manageable units and today the area available for fish farming is some 60,000 ha. A variety of freshwater species are produced in polyculture in these ponds including common carp, bighead carp, grass carp, silver carp, catfish, pike, tench, and pike-perch. Production has shown a gently increasing trend over recent years and stood at 26,500 tonnes in 2018, according to FAO.

Common carp comprehensively dominates the production of pond-farmed freshwater fish, though its position has slipped a little over the last decade or so, from 91% of the production in 2010 to 79% in 2018. Carp is typically farmed extensively, meaning the yields are less than 1,500 kg/ha and the fish relies on the naturally available phytoplankton in the pond which the farmer supplements with cereals, mainly wheat—extruded feeds are not used. Average productivity of pond farms in Poland has also increased over the last years and was about 441 kg/ha in 2018 from 283 kg/ha in 2010. However, productivity of individual farms may be higher or lower depending on a variety of factors, management practices, use of supplementary feeds, weather conditions, water availability etc. The sector is highly fragmented with some 850 farms 70% of which are small with pond areas less than 50 ha, according to Krzysztof Hryszko, Institute of Agricultural and Food Economics and Andrzej Lirski, Inland Fisheries Research Institute, in an article in Przegląd Rybacki 05/2020, while just over a quarter are between 50 and 500 ha.

Polish consumers like their fish large

Carp production typically follows a three-year cycle, where ponds are stocked in spring and harvested in autumn in the third year when the fish are 1.5 to 2 kg in size. Broodstock are either allowed to spawn naturally or are manually stripped of their eggs and milt which are then mixed. When the fertilised eggs hatch the larvae are collected, grown in tanks till they reach about 3 cm, and then introduced into ponds. In the first two years the fish are usually moved in autumn to storage ponds where they spend the winter and then back to grow out ponds in the spring. In the third year they are moved to storage ponds in the autumn and harvested from there for the market. This production cycle is not without risks, says Anna Pyc, a fish farm owner, mainly because from spring to autumn the fish are invisible. The ponds are large and the water turbid, so If there is an outbreak of disease, for example, there are few warning signs and so the stock can suffer a lot of damage before control measures can be implemented.

The main period for carp consumption in Poland is over the Christmas season and as a result there is a lot of carp on the market during this period. Knowing the popularity of carp at this time supermarkets have offers on carp which they use to tempt consumers in the hope of getting them to do the rest of their shopping there too. However, Poland with a per capita consumption of seafood of 15 kg per year is already at the lower end of the scale compared with the rest of the EU. And of this, data from Pawel Wielgosz, the CEO of the producer organisation, Polski Karp, show that carp amounts to 0.5 kg with salmon a little better at 0.8 kg.

New series of products to be launched by Polski Karp

Mr Wielgosz and others in the industry are concerned about this apparent lack of interest in carp and are launching several new initiatives to increase awareness about the fish, how it is produced, and the benefits it offers. Polski Karp will introduce two marketing campaigns, each worth PLN6m (EUR1.3m) and supported by the EMFF. One will be for the last two months of the year, while the other will extend to 2023. The campaigns will highlight a series of new products that the PO is selling, carp fillets and steaks packaged in modified atmosphere, a new series of carp-based products in glass jars, as well as the traditional fresh whole or fresh gutted carp. All the products will be available in retail stores from November this year. The advantage of MAP is that it is far easier to distribute than fresh whole or gutted to say nothing of live fish, says Mr Wielgosz, so it is possible to reach many more customers. Fishmongers and small retailers can allocate space on a refrigerated shelf without having to consider ice, water, tables, or other investments to display the fish. There is of course the disadvantage that MAP packages with carp are likely to be placed near other fish products in MAP enabling a rapid comparison of prices, which may not be in the carp’s favour. Another body, the Polish Fishery Association under Dr Andrzej Lirski from the Inland Fisheries Institute, will launch Karp 2020, a campaign to start in November 2020 to promote carp and pond aquaculture. A particular target will be young consumers, for, as Dr Lirski says, the future of the carp sector depends on them. There are good reasons to try and boost Polish awareness and consumption of carp apart from the economic benefits that would accrue to farmers. In a paper in the British Food Journal published in June 2020, Katrin Zander and Yvonne Feucht suggest that carp could be make a healthful and environmentally beneficial contribution to the growing demand for protein. Their study also showed that consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 were significantly more likely to describe carp as difficult to prepare confirming the necessity of targeting this group with simple recipes as envisaged in the Karp 2020 campaign.

Environmental benefits of carp cultivation need to be better known

Other interesting results the paper reveals relate to the ignorance of many consumers regarding the environmental friendliness of carp production. This is confirmed by Dr Anna Wisniewska, director of the Inland Fisheries Institute, who says consumers need to be educated about the benefits of carp farming for the environments as this will stimulate interest in the consumption of carp. Carp farming as it is practiced today is fundamentally not very different from the way it was done centuries ago—low density cultivation in polyculture with other species and without the use of extruded feeds. This form of cultivation has been shown to place the least nutrient burden on the environment compared to other food production sectors in Europe, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The ponds and their surroundings are a magnet for wild flora and fauna making the area so biodiverse that it is often designated a Natura 2000 site. In addition, ponds play a role in water retention, groundwater regulation, flood control, and they process organic matter that enters the ponds from the surroundings. Consumers are unaware of these ecosystem services that pond farms provide, something that could be highlighted in promotion campaigns. In the context of barriers to increasing carp consumption, consumers mentio
ned the presence of large numbers of bones as well as the occasionally muddy taste that the fish exhibits. They also mentioned low availability and the perception of carp as a fish from an old-fashioned cooking tradition. Encouragingly, many of these barriers can and are being addressed. Low availability is an aspect that some producers are already working on to remedy by selling their fish around the year instead of just during the Christmas season. The issue of bones is one that could be tackled by processors. If several incisions are made along the width of the fillet severing the bones that are present, the fragments that are left will dissolve when the fillet is cooked. Better farm management can reduce or eliminate the muddy taste, while new products from carp, such as fillets, sold in convenient sizes and attractive packaging that includes an easy recipe will help give carp’s image a complete makeover.

To identify ways of increasing demand for new products the researchers presented consumers with a selection, all of which were convenient to prepare and of portion size. The responses showed that three of the products (bone-cut carp fillet, carp crisps, and carp ham) elicited a high degree of interest with more than half the respondents willing to consider buying or tasting the product. However, the study showed that interest correlated positively with age, education levels, frequency of consuming fish, and the perception of carp as a healthful and tasty fish, suggesting that consumers who could already be considered carp lovers were the most receptive to novel carp products.


Innovations seen at different steps of the value chain

Novel carp products is just one of a number of areas in the carp value chain that have shown innovative developments. Magdalena Raftowicz from Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences, and Bertrand Le Gallic from the University of Western Brittany demonstrate the existence of technical, market, and institutional innovations in Lower Silesia in a paper in the journal Aquaculture. Among small producers, they found, direct sales offered a way to increase the unit value of the production. Such sales were typically conducted by the owner from a street market in the nearest city during the Christmas period and could result in an increase of EUR0.4 to 0.6 per kg compared with other sales channels. Street market sales were also used to promote the farm and any tourism services (e.g. accommodation, angling) it might offer in the summer. Another innovative feature concerned expanding the period of sales by selling to local restaurants and in particular to those that specialise in carp products. Initiatives to do this have been successful and restaurants now offer carp as the main dish on the menu at all times of the year. Retail chains in Lower Silesia have also noted this demand for carp and are now supplying live, gutted, and smoked fish as well as fillets throughout the year.

Promotion of locally produced carp with the help of a Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) label or a local certification, such as “Barycz Valley recommends,” awarded by the local producers’ association, was also identified as innovative. Producers said that their customers, retailers in particular, ask for this certification. Vertical integration of operations by producers so that they not only produce the fish but also the cereals that are given as supplementary feed, investments in ways of adding value to products (specialised fish transport systems, processing plants), of providing fish all the year around without going through intermediaries (restaurants), and of diversifying income streams (recreational fisheries) were among other innovations that characterised the sector. The availability of live carp in hypermarkets in Lower Silesia over the Christmas period where previously it could only be purchased at the farm or at other outlets is also considered innovative. In terms of market structure innovations, EU countries, such as the UK and Ireland, to which large numbers of Polish people have emigrated are relatively new markets for carp products outside the traditional carp-eating countries in Central and Eastern Europe. However, these innovations are not universally implemented across fish farms. Some are more suitable to small establishments and others to big ones, however they all tend to increase the value of carp production, say the authors, and most of them can be replicated in the carp sector in other parts of Poland or even in other countries.

Climate change is a serious threat to carp farmers

The positive trends in production and innovation notwithstanding, carp farmers are facing a number of challenges that need to be addressed if the sector is to continue to evolve. Among the biggest threats the sector faces are those related to climate change. Pond farmers usually draw water from rivers to produce fish. When the ponds are drained to harvest the fish, the water is returned to the river. However, winters and springs are getting dryer and summers hotter in Poland, which has an impact on fish farmers. Warmer winters with less precipitation as snow or rain prevent rivers from being replenished with water as they were in the past. Farmers cannot draw the water they need as the available water must be shared by the different users—fish farmers, crop farmers, anglers, municipalities etc. The lack of water can prevent pond farmers from topping up their ponds as they lose water to evaporation. This has a direct impact on the fish which have less water and less oxygen in which to grow. Moreover, the summer is the growth period for the fish when they are fed with supplementary cereals, metabolic rates are high, and they need a lot of oxygen. If there is a deficiency oxygen because of the lack of water the fish cannot be fed which affects their growth. Pawel Wielgosz, the CEO of the producer organisation Polski Karp and the owner of a fish farm, says in two decades of experience producing fish he has never experienced drought conditions as he did this year. In general, from being a sporadic issue, drought has become regular. Anna Pyc, who produces on 400 ha of ponds, recalls each of the last five years as having a period of drought, and suggests that the issue is becoming increasingly widespread.

Janus Wrona, Director of the Department of Fisheries, agrees that drought is a real and pressing problem. In the first instance, he says, compensation is available within the de minimis rules (support that is deemed too little to distort competition) for issues arising from drought. However, there are many farms which cannot produce because of drought, nor will they be able to produce in the future because the problem of drought cannot be solved in a short time period, and so giving them compensation is not the answer. According to Mr Wrona there are two ways to address the challenge presented by drought. One is a national programme of water retention which could benefit most farms though not all, while the other is support for companies investing in recirculation aquaculture systems (RAS).

Water retention could mitigate the impacts of drought

Another issue that pond farmers are struggling with is the permit that allows them to use water from a river or stream. These permits are for a certain quantity of water and are valid for a long period (up to 10 years for trout and up to 30 years for carp farms), but there is no guarantee that they will be renewed at the end of the period. This obviously creates enormous uncertainty, says Anna Pyc, as a famer may have invested hundreds of thousands of euro in the farm. The risk that these permits may not be renewed will discourage investments in the sector which counters EU goals of increasing output from aquaculture, she feels. Mr Wrona states that the way these permits are issued is due to be changed so that farms that are part of the water retention programme will have priority when these permits are renewed. The Department of Fisheries is preparin
g a list of farms that are suitable to join the water retention programme.  Firstly, though, the data regarding quality and quantity of water in rivers, streams and other water bodies needs to be updated as this information is now obsolete due to changes in climate. This exercise will also provide information on other users of the water, such as agriculture, industry, tourism, etc., and on the extent they use water to ensure that access is divided equitably between the different sectors. Before the water retention programme can be implemented for pond farms, however, the department together with the Inland Fisheries Institute is conducting studies to find out how best pond farms can work with the retention programme. The research required is highly complex and it is likely to take some time before the results appear, cautions Mr Wrona.

Baltic fleet suffers from slump in cod quotas, fishing restrictions

The Department of Fisheries is also responsible for marine fisheries, an area that has seen significant changes over the last years. Vessels from the Polish fleet fish in different parts of the Atlantic as well as in the Pacific but catches from the Baltic Sea amount to three fourths of the total. The most important commercial species in the Baltic are managed with quotas and these have been decreasing over the last years. Sprat, herring, and cod are the most economically significant species for Poland. While the country’s quotas for sprat and herring are 22% and 11% smaller in 2020 compared to last year leaving them at 62,000 tonnes and 77,000 tonnes respectively, the quota for cod is down almost 90% to under 1,000 tonnes. The department would like to close the Baltic for a period of three years to allow stocks to rebuild, but is aware that this is unrealistic due to the scale of the undertaking, as a compensation programme would have to address fishers across the entire Baltic Sea region. Mr Wrona is keen to put invest more research into the causes behind the depletion of the cod stock, where mortality from natural causes is now higher than from fishing, he says. Some problems such as warming water or the lack of inflows from the North Sea cannot be solved as they are the result of natural phenomena, but comprehensive and decisive analysis of changes in the Baltic and the factors influencing them would make it easier to apply remedial measures, he says.

Pandemic hits some sectors harder than others

The pandemic had a huge impact on the trout farming sector. Carp farms have been spared so far as the main sales season is yet to start, but for trout farmers the two-month lockdown from March prevented sales creating a large volume of unsold market-sized fish for which there was little storage space on the farms. When the lockdown lifted in May there was a glut of fish on the market competing with the trout that was produced after the lockdown and reducing prices. For the processing sector too the impact of the virus combined with the closure of the Baltic cod fishery in the latter half of last year sent several smaller processing plants to the wall. Bigger factories could work with herring and sprat and so were spared the fate of the smaller plants. The virus did, however, have a positive impact on the canning sector, where turnover increased as consumers stockpiled on canned fish in anticipation of harder times, when movement might be restricted and supplies of food could become unreliable. Perhaps the greatest challenge presented by the pandemic is learning how to manage it to prevent the spikes in infections that lead to severe restrictions. In most countries, until a vaccine is discovered, produced, distributed, and administered, the virus is going to be a part of life, the quicker we learn how to live with it the better.

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