Promise of Russian help not yet coming true for Crimean seafood industry

Published on
April 22, 2019

Nearly surrounded by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the Crimean Peninsula has a rich seafood history. 

But in March 2014, when it was then a part of the Ukraine, it gained the world’s attention for a different reason, when the Russian military entered the peninsula, held a disputed referendum, and moved to annex the territory as a Russian federal subject.

SeafoodSource is taking a deeper dive into Crimea’s seafood industry with a two-part series. Part 1 focuses on Crimea’s wild fisheries and Part 2 investigates efforts at building up the regional aquaculture sector.

After annexation, a promising future

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many of those working in the local seafood industry initially expressed excitement about the growth potential newly available through easier access to Russian markets and investors. But the peninsula’s wild-catch totals have stagnated since 2014. Now, many are looking to aquaculture as the path forward for growing the region’s seafood industry.

When it was a part of the Soviet Union, Crimea was regarded as a premier vacation destination due to its beauty, richly appointed resorts, and sumptuous wines that paired well with local, freshly-caught Black Sea anchovy, sprat, and Kerch herring. With the economy focused on tourism, the peninsula’s fishing industry did not receive much attention from the Soviet government.

That relative neglect continued when Crimea became part of the Ukraine. The industry fell into “very bad financial shape,” according to Andrey Dedyukhin, chairman of the Fisheries Committee of the Republic of Crimea. By the time of the Russian annexation, nearly 30 percent of companies involved in fishing and processing seafood were loss-making, with the remainder struggling to stay afloat.

“The first thing [that had to happen] to enhance the industry’s economic performance and restore its financial confidence was restoring the whole supply chain from fishing to storage to processing to sale, which had been excellently working until the Soviet Union’s collapse,” Dedyukhin said at a 2014 news conference focused on the regional industry, according to TASS agency coverage of the event.

In his opinion, five years were needed to achieve this goal. He said Crimea held untapped potential of catching between 100,000 to 300,000 metric tons (MT) of seafood annually, with the possibility of building to 500,000 MT a year if other catches in waters of neighboring countries also improved.  

The Black Sea and the Sea of Azov are part of what Russia refers to as the Azov Black Sea fishery basin, one of five fishery basins in Russia. The seafood industry in the Crimean Peninsula annually takes in around 60 percent of the basin’s total catch. Collectively, it is caught and processed by approximately 100 seafood companies operating 43 fishing vessels and 41 processing plants, primarily producing frozen and canned fish.

In his 2014 press conference, Dedyukhin said Crimea’s integration with Russia would open new avenues to growth for the local seafood industry operating in the basin. And initially, his prognostication appeared prescient. In 2015, the first full year under Russian control, an estimated 52,700 MT of seafood was caught in the basin, an increase of nearly 86 percent year-on-year, according to the Fisheries Committee of the Republic of Crimea. The increase in catch was due to higher results in fishing of carp gudgeon, Black Sea sprat, conch shell, sprat, and horse mackerel, it said. However, the increase was largely attributed to the return to business as normal following the annexation. In 2014, the total catch in the area reached just 30,000 MT, as much of the industry has been idle during part of the year because of the political uncertainty surrounding the annexation. 

The next year, 2016, saw a further increase to 60,000 MT. The catch of grey mullet went up 90 MT in 2013 to 345 MT in 2016, conch shell catches improved from 220 MT to 1,000 MT, and Black Sea shrimp catches went from 2 MT to 78 MT. 

The Russian Federal Agency for Fisheries credited the growth to the measures taken by Russia, including the lowering of tax rates, offers of financial support to seafood firms, and the elimination of administrative barriers. The number of seafood-related companies registered on in Crimea ballooned from 181 in 2015 to 304 in 2017, the Russian Fisheries Agency reported.

Speed bump or warning sign?

But in 2017, the growth of Crimea’s catch stalled, with totals roughly stagnant to 2016’s figures. And in 2018, the basin’s output dropped 26 percent, to 75,000 MT, meaning Crimea’s portion of the basin’s catch was roughly 45,000 MT. Data on species harvested show decreases in catches of Black Sea anchovy, sprat, and Black Sea sprat – all anchor species for the local industry.

Revealing that the basin had not performed as expected, the Russian government stopped reporting official catch totals from the basin. In March 2019, Russia was widely celebrating the five-year milestone of the so-called Crimean Spring, and state media put out numerous reports of the gains made by Crimea’s economy under Russian rule. But a report by local Russian authorities covering all of the region’s agricultural sectors did not include any of its usual mentions of seafood. And an annual special report that had been issued in 2015, 2016, and 2017 by the Russian government on the state of Crimean fisheries was not released in 2018. Thus far in 2019, the Russian government still has not issued any overall update on the state of the peninsula’s fisheries. 

A few bright spots have emerged out of the general gloom, however. The Fisheries Committee of the Republic of Crimea recently put out a press release announcing the boutique fishery of Kerch herring had a better year in 2018, catching 85 MT of the species, three times more than in 2017. The species is renowned for its relative small size and unique taste, and in the release, Andrey Dedyukhin, the organization’s head, said it will lead an effort to promote and brand the fish in markets outside Crimea.

However, it is highly unlikely that the wild catches alone will bring Crimea’s seafood haul to anywhere near the predicted annual harvest of 100,000 MT to 300,000 MT forecast soon after the Russian annexation. To achieve that goal, both local players and national Russian authorities are now looking to the promise of aquaculture to make up the difference.

Reporting from Saint Petersburg, Russia

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