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"Salmo letnica" Ohridska pastrmka

It is found only in Lake Ohrid, which was formed in the Ice Age and has waters so pure that with the naked eye one can easily see the bottom even when it is more than 10 meters (33 feet) deep. The Ohrid trout, or salmo letnica, highly prized by fishermen and gourmets alike, was identified as a unique species in 1924.
 

“If you were caught with this type of fish, you could go to prison.” 

In February, Macedonia imposed a total ban on fishing the Ohrid trout, a unique and now gravely threatened species. Yet fishermen, smugglers and restaurant owners continue to flout the law and deplete the remaining stocks.

The main explanation for their behavior is simple - money. A glance at any restaurant menu reveals that the Ohrid trout sells for over 30 euro per kilogram (US$14 per pound), a considerable sum in this relatively poor country. For many, the temptation to get their hands on such easy income is great.

Poachers Drive Macedonia’s Unique Trout Towards Extinction

 

 Lake Ohrid (Macedonia )

But the last two decades have not been kind to the lake’s most famous culinary emblem. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, deregulation, overfishing and the introduction of non-native species have had a calamitous effect.The Ohrid Trout Company, the Macedonian company responsible for commercial fishing until last year, employed game wardens to protect the lake’s natural resources. But when the government ended its concession to the company in March 2004, the wardens disappeared. Groups of local fishermen are responsible for most of the illegal catches that are hauled out of the lake.


"Salmo letnica" Ohridska pastrmka

For centuries a staple food for the peasants and fishermen who lived around the water’s edge, stocks held up well until recent times. Until the 1980s, some 220 tons of trout were caught each year and it was not uncommon for anglers to catch fish weighing five kilograms (11 pound). Catches have tailed off dramatically. In 1996, the IUCN-World Conservation Union placed the fish on its Red List of endangered species.

One restaurant owner in Struga, at the northern end of Lake Ohrid, admitted that fishermen offer their illegal catches to a tight-knit, secretive ring of restaurant owners and fish merchants. “They only deliver the trout to those they trust - to restaurant owners or fish shops,” he said. “The fishmongers will only sell it on if they know you.“They know it’s forbidden to fish for trout on the lake and that it may have consequences, which is why they are afraid to offer the fish to strangers.”

Fishermen use trusted middlemen to phone up the restaurants, or else they show up themselves to offer their illegal catch.

The restaurants openly flout the rules. Seven of the best-known places in the town of Ohrid still list the trout on their menus. Five offered to serve the fish to reporters posing as diners.

Boris Georgievski, from the angling association St. Apostol Petar, said that lakeside eateries had ignored an initiative to remove Ohrid trout from the menus. Only one, Hotel Donco, had gone along with the scheme, he said, and, “the rest said such a move would damage tourism.”

It was indicative of the slack approach to the ban that when the great tenor Jose Carreras was invited to open this year’s Ohrid summer festival, the organizers boasted that the singer would be served the local trout.

Trout is regularly prepared in the presidential villa in Ohrid when senior government officials are in residence. The problem is not limited to Ohrid - a number of surrounding lakeside villages also have restaurants that serve trout.

 

To find out just how easy it is to taste the delicacy, these reporters went to a restaurant in Peshtani. There, staff offered to provide trout for up to 10 people with just a day’s notice.While one restaurant owner said that impoverished fishermen had no option but to defy the ban in order to feed their families, sporting anglers are less sympathetic.

Georgievski says the ban has only stimulated illegal fishing. “Before, there used to be only three people from the village of Trpejca casting nets, but now there are perhaps just three who aren’t doing it,” he said.

The ban has pushed up the price of trout, giving poachers another incentive. Poachers said that the wholesale price for fresh Ohrid trout on the black market had jumped to 850 denars, or around 12 euro, per kilogram from only 600 denars before the ban.

It is questionable whether arresting more poachers would have much of an impact on the trade, as fines are small.

"Salmo letnica" Ohridska pastrmka

Police say they lack the equipment to spot nocturnal poachers. “It’s very hard to catch illegal fishermen on the spot,” said Ohrid Police Chief Branko Jovanovski.

“The fishermen often put nets in the lake at night and leave them for days,” he added. “They collect them later, when our officers are unable to see them.”

The police have arrested few poachers, but have had more success in impounding nets on the lake. In the first six months of 2005, Ohrid police confiscated more than 1,200 fishing nets found in the lake. “Even if they do catch them, the penalties are symbolic at about 25 euro,” said Georgievski. He added that while police charged more 70 poachers in 2004, not one of them was convicted.

“They are catching fish throughout the year, including in the breeding season when they should be left alone,” said Zoran Spirkovski of Ohrid’s Hydro-Biological Institute.“Poachers are not fishing selectively as the fishermen used to do in the past,” he said.

“The nets are also too large and the mesh so fine that poachers can catch huge quantities of fish with a single cast.” Spirkovski is not optimistic about the trout’s chances of survival. “If fishing really stops until stocks reach a sustainable level, commercial fishing could begin again,” he said. “But until now, profits have always come before sustainability.” One proposed solution is to increase fish stocks by artificial spawning. This involves catching adult fish, stripping them of their eggs and then hatching the eggs in managed environments.


"Salmo letnica" Ohridska pastrmka

In any case, the police do not see chasing poachers as their priority. Their main mission is to guard the border with Albania, which runs through the western end of the lake. Macedonian scientists are sounding the alarm over the fish’s future. The scale of the poaching and the methods used are threatening the trout with extinction, they say.

In any case, the police do not see chasing poachers as their priority. Their main mission is to guard the border with Albania, which runs through the western end of the lake. Macedonian scientists are sounding the alarm over the fish’s future. The scale of the poaching and the methods used are threatening the trout with extinction, they say. But the adult fish still need to be caught in the first place and hatchery scientists say the number of eggs available for collection by the three existing hatcheries - two in Macedonia and one in Albania – has fallen. Of a projected figure of four million eggs targeted for collection and artificial hatching this year, the hatcheries only caught three million, despite increased efforts.Bone Palasevski, of the Institute of Agriculture, agrees the ban should be extended. “The ban has been very brief, so we can’t assess its effects yet,” he said. “Our opinion is that the ban should be prolonged.”

That is also the feeling of anglers’ groups like St. Apostol Petar. “The ban on fishing trout and bleak should stand for five or even 10 years,” said Radovan Dimitrievski, a member of the organization's board. “The state isn’t taking the problem seriously. If it did, it would have solved it by now. We’ve been talking about this for years but no one has listened.”