The challenges are not insurmountable given the strengths
As a landlocked country, the Slovak Republic focuses on freshwater aquaculture, producing mainly freshwater fish species. The production of other aquatic animals, such as crustaceans and molluscs, and aquatic algae cultivation is not as widespread. Nonetheless, the aquaculture sector is characterised by a diverse range of fish species.
The aquaculture sector in Slovakia is small and most aquaculture enterprises can be classified as micro-enterprises, consisting mainly of family farms that achieve small-scale production intended for the local market. Nevertheless, a decisive share of the total aquaculture production is attributable to small enterprises and several medium-sized enterprises. In 2022, total aquaculture production amounted to 2,975 tonnes, which was under the 1% of the total EU aquaculture production.
Fish consumption in Slovakia has remained low for a long time. On average, a person consumes 5.9 kilogram of fish per year, but only 1 kilogram of freshwater fish. It is a policy objective to achieve a gradual increase in fish consumption in Slovakia. It can be done by promoting healthy fish food, demonstrating the preparation of fish meals, offering fish specialities at various social events, and by other initiatives.
What’s on the menu?
Natural conditions dictate that the most popular fish species is undoubtedly the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which accounts for up to 36.7% of the sector´s total production. In terms of production volume, next in line is the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), which accounts for 28.1% of total fish production in Slovakia. It is mainly farmed in warmer, lowland areas. Other species include the silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), northern pike (Esox lucius), wels catfish (Silurus glanis), pike-perch (Zander lucioperca), and European eel (Anguilla anguilla). The African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) produced in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) is also represented in the production.
Historically, aquaculture in Slovakia developed in two separate areas. One of them was pond fish farming, which is now the most popular method of fish farming and primarily found in the country’s lowlands. It is characterised by taking advantage of the development of natural food, which is formed in the active layer of mud (i.e. upper 15 centimetres) in shallow and very eutrophic ponds. Ponds are often used for mixed stocking, where the main fish is the common carp together with accompanying species, such as the white amur, bighead carp, northern pike, pike-perch. Nowadays, they also fulfil a number of secondary roles in the landscape, such as water retention, recreation, or irrigation. They play an important role in protected bird areas (NATURA 2000). However, this dual role significantly affects the level of fish production in Slovakia and is a subject of dispute between fish-farmers and ornithologists.
Other methods of fish farming
The other development in aquaculture production is salmonid (mainly rainbow trout) farming. Trout farming in Slovakia is mainly related to the breeding of Oncorhynchus mykiss in breeding channels on small, family-owned trout farms. A significant portion of production takes place in cage farms situated in water reservoirs at higher altitudes. The conditions for breeding include a sufficient amount of quality water and industrially produced pellet feed. Trout farms are mostly located in the elevated areas of Slovakia, where the environment is more suitable for cold water fish.
In recent years, a new group of recirculatory aquaculture system (RAS) breeders focusing on novel species, such as African catfish and European eel, has emerged in Slovakia. The country’s annual production of African catfish is approximately 900 tonnes, which nowadays accounts for a third of the total fish production. This number is achieved entirely by the only farm that breeds African catfish in Slovakia.
In terms of marketing, a distinction shall be made between the production of fish for direct consumption and the production of juveniles used in aquaculture for further breeding or restocking of fishing grounds. In contrast to trout farming, which is dominated by the production of fish for direct human consumption, the production of European eel is mainly aimed at further breeding or restocking of fishing grounds. RAS too are mainly used for production of fish for direct human consumption.
Strengths and weaknesses of the sector
The strengths of Slovak aquaculture include the tradition of breeding freshwater fish species, a diverse array of species, the quality of the fish, and closed breeding cycles i.e., the presence of fish hatcheries in fish farms. Finally, none of the farms have experienced viral diseases in recent years. The aquaculture sector can also contribute to the recovery of fish fauna in Slovakia by supporting the gene pool of important aquaculture species.
However, there are also some weaknesses: the population’s low consumption of fish, low wages of fishery workers, insufficient technical and technological innovation, the absence of breeding programmes, as well as the absence of research and life-long education in this field. Lastly, there is a conflict between fish farming and environmental protection measures which causes problems for fish farmers due to fish-eating predators and the existence of strict management regulations in some protected areas. Protected animals, such as the river otter (Lutra lutra), the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), and the grey heron (Ardea cinerea) have long been a nuisance for fish farmers all over Slovakia, not only because of the direct damage to the fish they prey on, but also the indirect damage such as stress that reduces overall productivity of the sector. The level of damage to fish in the farms caused by these predators in Slovakia amounts to approximately EUR250,000 per year by the great cormorant; EUR350,000 by the grey heron, and EUR40,000 by the river otter.
Slovakia is a land-locked country with an abundance of freshwater sources including a rich network of rivers. Despite this, fish farmers are noticeably affected by loss of water needed for fish farming every year, due to drainage, climate change, and pressure from industrial and agricultural needs. Floods are also becoming increasingly frequent. They are mainly caused by torrential rains, which can wash away higher-lying trout farms and destroy the production.
Many opportunities to seize
The country’s aquaculture sector offers many opportunities such as the non-productive functions of ponds, ecosystem services of aquaculture, targeted marketing to increase consumption of freshwater fish, together with building a positive image of the sector, increasing fish production in existing farms, as well as building new fish farms, diversifying income and increasing the ex-farm sales of fish and fish products. To date, diversification has been a rarely used approach in Slovakia to provide additional income for aquaculture entities, to counter the seasonal nature of fish farming and to compensate for any loss of income from the main activity. In addition to increasing production, aquaculture facilities can take advantage of another option for streamlining their operations and ensuring sustainable development: by diversifying their activities, they can increase the value their aquaculture products. One of the frequently used approaches is agrotourism. Another possibility is the introduction of new or non-traditional aquaculture species and fish products, which can also contribute to the increase of domestic fish consumption. As part of this diversification, it might be possible to increase the support for production of gastropods, clams, crustaceans, algae, and aquatic plants.
Risks to the aquaculture sector
As is the case of other sectors of animal farming, the aquaculture sector faces real threats like the spread of infectious diseases, declining sales of live fish during peak pre-Christmas period, a lack of professionally educated people interested in working in the sector, deteriorating water quality and quantity, the spread of invasive non-native fish species, restrictions by nature protection authorities, and increasing water consumption on farms.
Animal welfare and biosecurity measures in aquaculture farms can contribute to achieving the objective of reducing the use of antimicrobials in farms. It is important to improve animal husbandry conditions through management measures to reduce negative environmental influences, improve animal health, reduce the number of veterinary interventions, and minimise the use of pharmaceuticals. The introduction of innovations in the field of prevention and control of animal diseases in aquaculture and to shift the breeding work of fish farms in this direction may also be beneficial.
However, the rate of development in the aquaculture sector that could help to combat these threats or adapt to climate change, increase fish production, and reduce the impact on the environment is still too low. Particularly, there is a lack of modern technology for recirculation systems that could successfully address these problems and reduce the demand for water. Moreover, the physical nature of the work is provoking a shortage of trained staff. Cheap imports of fish and aquaculture products pose a serious threat to domestic producers, as they are unable to compete on price. This is a result of better technical development of aquaculture equipment in other countries and their governments’ assistance.
Major challenges lie ahead for the aquaculture sector, but the European Maritime, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Fund 2021-2027 will help tackle them. The sector´s priorities include increasing the competitiveness of the freshwater aquaculture sector, adapting the industry to climate change, diversifying the range of species produced, developing and exploiting non-productive functions of aquaculture farms, boosting innovations in fish farming, and promoting the aquaculture sector in Slovakia.
Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development
of the Slovak Republic