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A Tragic Balkan Fish Story

The Ohrid trout has lived in its Balkan lake for thousands of years, but the last 20 have pushed it to near-extinction.
by Uffe Andersen 15 February 2011

OHRID, Macedonia | "That trout has built so many houses in Ohrid! So many operations have been performed in Ohrid thanks to that trout! People have lived because of that trout!"


The president of the St. Peter the Apostle sport fishing association in Ohrid, Radovan Dimitrieski, explains that in Yugoslav days, if you were from this southwestern Macedonian town on the shores of Lake Ohrid, you were expected to bring a few fish to the doctor or other professional from whom you sought services elsewhere in the republic.


"The Ohrid trout is 1½ million years old. It's very tasty and grows more slowly than any other trout in the world,” local fisherman Radovan Dimitrieski says.


Dimitrieski speaks enthusiastically about the fish – but in a reproachful tone. People in Ohrid have been ungrateful to their trout, Dimitrieski believes, so he and his association have decided to put up a sculpture of it. Partly to honor the fish, but also in hopes of rousing the citizens of Ohrid and the authorities at the last minute.


"In the last 10 years, the number of Ohrid trout has fallen to 5 percent of what it was. All spawning grounds have been destroyed and the trout is in danger of extinction,” he says.


If that happens, it will be a symbol of the city and of all of Macedonia that will disappear – something that for millennia has been taken for granted and been an inseparable part of the lives of everyone who lived by the lake. But just that – taking it for granted – may turn out to be fatal for the Ohrid trout.


"Previously, they caught 10 tons of trout in one day to provide eggs for breeding,” Dimitrieski says. “But today, they can’t catch even one ton in a whole year. It’s amazing! Back then, absolutely nothing was done to take care of the trout – and this nothing was done for so long that it now faces extinction.”



The Ohrid trout, Salmo letnica, lives only in this lake straddling the border between Albania and Macedonia and in rivers leading to and from the lake. There are four subspecies of the Ohrid trout that breed at different times and in different places in the lake – one may already be extinct – and there's another endemic strain of trout in the lake, as well, belvica or Salmo ohridanus. All are endangered and normally referred to collectively as Ohrid trout. For thousands of years, gourmands and fishermen have held it in high esteem. Lately, poachers have joined them. But to begin from the beginning:

Lake Ohrid was created by the shifting of the earth's tectonic plates and is one of the oldest lakes in the world. Only Baikal in Russia and Tanganyika in eastern Africa are thought to predate its four to five million years. More than 100 animals and plants are found only here.


The lake shores have been inhabited at least 8,000 years, but the oldest known name of the town that now goes by Ohrid is “only” two and a half thousand years old: Lychnidos is Greek and means “city of light.” And that is exactly what Ohrid is: at all times of the year, the traditional houses with their overhanging upper stories are lit by abundant sunshine. And as the town crawls up the mountainside, the lake reflects the sun onto it from below, as well.


The water in Lake Ohrid is so clear that the bottom is visible at 10 meters depth – but in some places, the bottom is 288 meters down, and the average depth is 155 meters. The surface area of the lake, 358 square kilometers, makes it the second largest in the Balkans. But because of its depth, Ohrid contains by far the most water, and the locals have good reason to call it "our sea."


For one thing, if there's the slightest mist, the opposite shore cannot be seen. But the lake is most sealike during storms, which – typical for the Balkans – occur suddenly and raise up waves as large and noisy as those of a sea.


Then, the lake calms at a stroke. Otherwise, from early morning until late at night, boats of all sizes cruise back and forth between the beaches and villages along the shore. Storm-driven waves make them disappear, just like the many gulls, ducks, and swans that are at home in the lake.


And then the lake seems timeless: this is how Alexander the Great's Macedonians must have seen it when they lived in Lychnidos. Or the Romans when they marched into the area 150 years later. Among other things, the Romans built a large amphitheater (still in use), and their highway – the Via Egnatia, from the Adriatic Sea in the west to today's Istanbul – went via Ohrid as well. Apart from traders, along this road came Christian missionaries, and Ohrid is one of the first places in the Balkans where Christianity took root. By the fifth century, 12 churches stood here.


All the while, the Ohrid trout was a staple food for farmers and fishermen – as it was until recently.



Many have lamented the breakup of Yugoslavia, and one creature with real reason to cry is the Ohrid trout.


Until Macedonian independence in 1991, the annual catch of trout was 220 tons, and the population was stable. But after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, deregulation, a power vacuum, and economic crisis spelled disaster for the fish.


The Ohrid trout is pictured on the Macedonian 2-denar coin.
In 1996, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put the fish on its Red List of threatened species. (It was considered vulnerable at that time, although the organization’s most recent assessment, in 2006, could not determine the size of the remaining population.) Still, Macedonian authorities allowed commercial fishing. Formally, the rights to catch trout belonged to a concession holder and were thus limited. However, Dimitrieski says, "The company that won the concession made a five-year fishing plan that was then approved by the Hydrobiological Institute in Ohrid. With its signature, the institute allowed the company to catch 105 tons of trout annually – but it wasn't possible to catch that much fish anymore.

He lays the blame squarely on the institute. "There, scientists since 1935 have caught trout to take eggs for artificial breeding and restocking of the lake. But until five years ago, they did so by catching tons of trout and not returning the mothers – the fertile females – to the lake but instead killing them and selling them at the market. It was a disaster!"  

At the institute, the head of the department that deals with the Ohrid trout, Zoran Spirkovski, admits, "Until 2005 the institute was nothing but a service to the company with the fishing concession. We were forced to collect as many eggs as we could – it was the policy of the company and of the authorities as well. And the fish we caught were not returned but sold.”


Spirkovski acknowledges that the Ohrid trout "is on the brink of destruction" and regrets that he himself helped the fishing concessionaire bring it to that brink. He said scientists fought against the policy "all the time" and that since 2005, the “mothers” have been returned to the lake.




The last fishing concession ended in 2004. In February 2005 Macedonian authorities introduced a ban on catching Ohrid trout in their waters until 2014.

How seriously the authorities take their own ban was seen when José Carreras visited the Ohrid Summer Festival six months after the ban was introduced. The organizers boasted publicly that they'd serve Ohrid trout to the tenor. Until 2009, Ohrid trout remained on the menus of many restaurants across the country.  


Dimitrieski's association teamed up with journalists on a campaign to promote a true, enforceable ban. After five years, the Ohrid trout is finally off the menu, officially, but in practice little has changed.


In October, a Russian football club played in Skopje and the country's largest newspaper, Dnevnik, got hold of a leaflet the club gave to its fans who wanted to travel to the match.


“From the national cuisine, do try tavce gravce [a bean dish], and for those who are willing to pay a bit more, the right choice would be Ohrid trout, which is served in restaurants,” it read.


Yet the most serious threat to the fish lies across the lake.


Almost half of Lake Ohrid is in Albania, and far more serious than pollution or invasion of the lake by other species of trout, Dimitrieski believes, is the fact that in that country it is still legal to catch and sell Ohrid trout most of the year.


"In Albania, people set up a tank with trout by the road and sell the fish for 5 euros per kilo,” Dimitrieski says. 


In the Albanian town by Lake Ohrid, Pogradec, all restaurants legally serve Ohrid trout. But a large part of the trout caught in Albanian waters is sold – illegally – in Macedonia. For while drugs and people are smuggled across borders elsewhere in the Balkans, trout is a hit with smugglers around here.


In Macedonia, fresh trout costs the equivalent of 20 euros per kilo, and in restaurants somewhat more than 30 euros. Considering that a monthly salary in the area is around 300 euros while many are unemployed, the difference between the going price in Albania and in Macedonia is significant. So the trout has become attractive for organized smugglers in this area, where smuggling is a centuries-old trade.


Except for restrictions on catching trout during the winter spawning period in effect since 2003, Albanians are free to take as much as they like, a far cry from the communist era. Until 1990, on the Albanian side, the government strictly limited the catch to 10 tons per year. In effect, Enver Hoxha's dictatorship was a great friend of the Ohrid trout. Since then, the Albanians have been fast making up for that, but they, too, feel the rapid decline in the number of fish. People in Pogradec say there are probably no more than 500 fishing boats working the Albanian part of the lake, fewer than half the number in the early 1990s.


Still, poachers and smugglers ensure that buyers not only in Albania and Ohrid, but in all Macedonian cities can always get their well-prepared Ohrid trout.


Most fish poachers set out their nets at night and take them in early the next or a subsequent morning, while it's still dark. Annually, 200 to 400 kilometers of net is confiscated, but few trespassers are caught. One reason is that there are only six border guards, who are there primarily to guard the border, not the fish. They are also poorly equipped, which is a particular problem in the winter, when the trout spawns, and the open guard boats aren´t exactly purpose-built, Dimitrieski explains.


Until recently, even those caught in the act faced almost symbolic fines of around 25 euros. In 2008 new punishments were introduced, and they're so strict that the EU wants them changed. Apart from fines, illegal fishers can be jailed for up to five years. Dimitrieski still believes that nothing will change much.

"Charges have been filed in 30 instances but only one person was convicted. He received one year in prison but has appealed, and the case will probably drag on indefinitely. When it comes to fines, one case is being processed but the rest have been rejected.”



Dimitrieski has a recipe to save the Ohrid trout from “genocide” at the hands of poachers: first, the ban on catching must be enforced and widened to include the entire lake, at least during the breeding period. Next, any fishing must be carefully regulated. Third, he believes the lake holds great potential as a sport fishing destination.


"We have a great offering, and it may be unique in the world. There's trout everywhere, and everywhere it's fished in much the same way. But our trolling differs in that we lower the spoon bait to between 40 and 80 meters, while elsewhere you'll fish near the surface. You can’t fish with spoon bait at this depth anywhere else in the world.”

Dejan Panovski is secretary of the Bilateral Secretariat for the Protection of Lake Ohrid, created by the Macedonian and Albanian governments in 2005.


He agrees that trout stocks have fallen dramatically and that the ban on fishing in Macedonia does little good – "because of poor inspection and because the ban cannot be implemented on the Albanian side.” Carefully, he says that “economic and social considerations” are in play and thus “we still haven't achieved the expected results of our cooperation.”


The official tone was markedly more optimistic just over a year ago when Panovski's bosses – Albania's and Macedonia's ministers of the environment – came to watch the release of thousands of young, artificially bred trout into the lake. The ministers both vowed their firm intention to protect the species. The Albanian minister, Fatmir Mediu, additionally spoke of harmonizing his country’s protection measures with those introduced by the Macedonians and also of declaring a total ban on taking trout.


Today, the reality looks less promising. Panovski notes that while laws are being harmonized, mainly through translating EU directives into domestic law, this has not helped much. "The two sides still have different ways of looking at the issue. People on the Albanian side are still focused on fishing as a way of life, while the majority in Macedonia have switched to tourism.”


Dimitrieski sees an immediate lakewide ban as the only way to save the Ohrid trout. But Panovski, with an eye to the region’s politics, does not see that coming. At least not for some time.


"The bad economic situation in the region means that such an important decision won't be made for a long time. The will is there and meetings are often held. But it seems to me that we are still far from a common solution to the problems.”


Lake Ohrid

Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist based in Smederevo, Serbia.
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