Invasive Seafood Species is Not Bad News for Bulgaria

Seafood industry highlights from a recent article by Meros’ Tina Peneva in the Bulgarian gastronomy magazine Bacchus.

Fish consumption is booming in Bulgaria

Deep-fried sprats are a favorite accompaniment to beer in the summer months.

For years, eating fish was typically a seasonal activity for Bulgarian consumers and was mainly limited to two varieties of fish. In the summer, Bulgarians would often have a plate piled high with tiny, deep-fried sprats to go with their cold beer and in the winter, many would enjoy baked, stuffed carp while celebrating the Day of St. Nicola, the Orthodox Christian patron saint of the sea and fishermen.

Until recently, the only other fish commonly found beyond the ubiquitous carp and sprats were mackerel and “white fish”, which refers to any type of white fleshed fish. Frozen fish was the norm, with some fresh seasonal exceptions along the Black Sea coast in the East or the Danube river shore in the North.

While many Bulgarian consumers continue to follow these fish consumption traditions, in the past decade, the Bulgarian fish market has seen major changes and has become increasingly complex, with new seafood industries developing around aquaculture – and around the notorious Black Sea Rapa whelk.

Source: Directorate General, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, European Commission

Bulgarian fish consumption has been on the rise and, according to official statistics totals, it is up to at least 6.7 kg per capita per year. According to unofficial data, real consumption is actually double this volume if unregistered catch and imports are included.  This increase is due to improvements in cold chain infrastructure, modernised retail outlets, as well as changing eating habits focused on health and variety. Chilled fresh fish is becoming more accessible, especially in larger cities.

Bulgaria is a small fish in the global fish market

Only 34 seafood species are harvested commercially in the Black Sea, including various types of both fish and crustaceans. In 2016, the catch totaled 8,500 MT, according to the official statistics and as much as 10,000 MT when adding the unregulated catch.

Source: Bulgarian Fish Association

In addition to wild catch fisheries, there are now over 670 aquaculture farms in Bulgaria producing mussels and clams, as well as other cold and warm water fish varieties like sturgeon, trout, carp, silver carp and Wels catfish. The total aquaculture production in 2015 was 13,600 MT with shellfish accounting for 25% of the volume. Mussel farms are a new and rapidly developing segment in Bulgarian aquaculture with over 30 farms established along the Black Sea coast.

 2016 Seafood Trade

Black Sea fish volumes are not enough to satisfy the growing consumer demand and already over 75% of the seafood products consumed in Bulgaria are imported. The total volume of fish and seafood products imported into Bulgaria is 34,000 MT per year and over one third of this volume is frozen mackerel imported from the Netherlands, Iceland and Norway, as well as frozen Danish salmon.

Source: International Trade Center

In addition to being a net importer, Bulgaria is a key exporter of various seafood products. In 2016, the total value of seafood exports was estimated at USD 31 million. Almost one third of the exports were shipped to neighboring Romania, including not only processed seafood but live, chilled and frozen fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Spain is Bulgaria’s second largest export partner and shipments were mainly shellfish.

The notorious Veined Rapa Whelk is one of the most lucrative segments in the Bulgarian seafood industry

The veined Rapa whelk, or Rapana venosa is not native to the Black Sea and originated in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan. Marine historians tell the story of how the whelk was transported along with ballast water to the Black Sea by Russian military ships during WWII and ever since, has become a common inhabitant of the Black Sea.

This whelk is considered one of the top 100 worst predatory invasive species in Europe,  according to the European Invasive Alien Species Gateway (DAISIE).

The Rapa whelk propagates very quickly and has no natural enemies in the Black Sea. In the past 10 years, due to global warming and the constant rise of the Black Sea water temperature, the veined Rapa whelk population has increased tremendously. It has started threatening the biological diversity of the Black Sea as the whelk eat the shellfish living in the sea, which are the natural filters for the sea water.

In order to control overpopulation by this invader, a new industry has developed in Bulgaria focusing on the harvesting and processing of Rapa whelks. The Rapa whelk is not only now the top species harvested in the Black Sea, but it is also one of the most lucrative products for the Bulgarian seafood processing industry. The annual catch is officially 3,500 MT but the actual, unofficial volume is estimated to be even more. Eight factories are processing the catch and products are exported to the key whelk consumers globally: South Korea (exports are valued 4.3 million USD) and Japan (2.4 million US) and smaller volumes to the US and China.