Rare trout get a new lease on life

Relentlessly fished, the Lake Ohrid trout was pushed to the verge of extinction until urgent steps, including a strict fishing ban, finally gave it a new chance.

“This season we found eggs in trout nests for the first time in a dozen years,” says Zoran Spirkovski, of the Ohrid Hydrobiological Institute.

Since it was founded in 1935, the institute has processed tens of millions of eggs and released millions of trout to the lake in the process of artificial spawning for stocking and repopulation purposes.

Authorities in Macedonia were aware of the pressure on the trout even before that, in the 19th century, but were particularly in recent decades reluctant to stomp out the lucrative fishing industry, with poaching in tow.

“In Turkish times, until 1912, fishing was banned during the spawning season [December to March] when trout emerge from the deep to lay and fertilise eggs,” Spirkovski says. “People caught with nets on the lake were actually shot at then.”

The institute’s hatchery was looked after and worked even under Italian occupation in World War II—but despite the effort, the fish was not under so much pressure in those days.

Lake Ohrid, Europe’s oldest and one of its highest, lies at 700m above sea level and covers 385 square kilometres. It’s also among the continent’s deepest, with a maximum depth of 290m.

Until tourists discovered it in the mid-1960s, the lake was largely undisturbed.

It did not take long for visitors—from former Yugoslavia, but also from Germany, The Netherlands and Britain—to discover the trout and its delicious pink meat, prepared in a multitude of local ways.

The Lake Ohrid trout (Salmo letnica) is an endemic species, meaning it lives only there. Tales of 30kg, 30-year-old fish are unconfirmed, but those half that size and age did exist. No fish as large as that was caught in past two decades, however.

Before tourists came, about 250 families on the Macedonian shore and 80 on the Albanian side fished for a living. Already in the 1970s, trout was Ohrid’s best-known export, ahead of electronics and chemical industries.

“Trout was flown to restaurants in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and abroad,” Spirkovski says. As the trout population, its age and its size dwindled, the efforts of fishermen doubled, often illegally.

Nets grew from the allowed 500m to more than a kilometre, their mesh finer than permitted, catching younger fish. The number of fishing lines dragged from boats grew from the legal four to a dozen or more, with a dozen hooks per line instead of the allowed five.

Even with fishing allowed only during 13 days between May and October, there were just too many boats, lines and nets, particularly as poaching went on even in wintertime spawning months, when each fish that was caught was killed with all its eggs.

Even in the legal sector, up to 2 500 fishing permits had been issued during the 13 days of the fishing season, with the registered fish harvest reaching eight tons each of those days—too much for the lake in Macedonia’s south-west.

Frantic fishing went on despite warnings from scientists that the trout, which takes three to four years to mature, along with its smaller and even rarer cousin, the belvica, were being driven to extinction.

Then, in 1991, it became worse, when the iron-handed Communist regime in Albania collapsed and took the harshly enforced fishing restrictions with it to history.

Before, the trout had refuge in the Albanian part of the lake. After, the entire lake was combed and the trout population dramatically declined, nearing extinction point.

The number of trout eggs fertilised by the Ohrid Institute dropped from the record of 21,5-million to just 1,5-million between 1989 and 2003, the last year any trout-fishing was allowed on the lake.

Finally, in March 2004, a total fishing ban went into effect on the entire lake and draconian laws were put in place against poachers, as well as traders or restaurants caught selling trout.

“Now we can finally do what we wanted to do much earlier, without fighting fishing,” Spirkovski says.

At present, both Macedonia and Albania pay fishermen to catch trout and deliver it to hatcheries—two in Macedonia and one in Albania—for stripping of eggs, which are later fertilised, and then to return the trout to the lake.

Each caught fish is marked with a small puncture of its gill-lid. It is a good sign that fish are now caught with three, even four marks, because it means they were caught as many times in as many years and are growing older, instead of being caught and eaten.

The institute’s aim now is to fertilise enough eggs to raise and release 3,5-million fingerlings—nine-month-old fish—into the lake annually, Spirkovski says.

Currently, only a dozen of the 72 concrete tanks outside the institute are filled with fresh water from the nearby spring and boarded against the sun, thousands of tiny trout darting in them.

There just aren’t enough eggs to fill more of the tanks yet, but at least the trout now have a shot at surviving—to face new challenges, such as an increase in the level of nutrients in the lean Ohrid water and the surge in the population of other fish.

“But that comes next, first we need to bring the numbers up,” Spirkovski says.—Sapa-dpa

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