Farming the Common Carp

In 1986 I visited what was then known as Czechoslovakia at Christmas time. In Wenceslas  Square in Prague there were huge concrete bowls which were empty when I arrived. The next day they were full of water and full of living carp, a traditional Christmas Eve food in central Europe. People arrived to buy the freshest of carp, choosing their living fish, taking it home and some, like my cousin kept it alive until Christmas Eve in the bathtub. Then he could not bring himself to kill the fish, so he gave it to his neighbours.

The size of the fish that I could have bought then would have startled a freshwater fisherman from England but these fish were farmed and had been farmed in that part of the world for more than a thousand years. They were (and still are) farmed in ponds where they are fed wheat and barley. In the Czech Republic today there are ponds in almost every region, except Northern Bohemia, and altogether more than 45,000 hectares is used for fish farming. Carp is the most commonly farmed fish (mainly common carp), but there are also pike, perch, zander, and trout.

Carp is a beautiful fish that grows, in normal conditions, to very large sizes – easily enough to make two meals for a large family in a predominantly catholic country where meat was forbidden on Fridays and holy days. In Europe you cannot get must further away from the sea than the old Czechoslovakia (Bohemia only had a coast in Shakespeare’s imagination) and so river and pond fish has always been an important source of nutrition for folk living there. They were for centuries the only fresh fish available in Central Europe.

These days the cities of central Europe have fresh fish and sea food flown in every day. In some small Alpine towns there is a daily delivery of sea food direct from the nearest international airport to keep the wealthy inhabitants and tourists fed with the sea bass, John Dory fish, sole, cod, lobsters and oysters to which they have grown accustomed. It is hardly environmentally friendly to deplete the oceans of the world of fish and fly and drive the fish caught thousands of miles where there is fresher fish available on your doorstep.

Fish farming in Central Europe is not a terribly profitable use of the land and to get the best out of a fish pond you need to spend money in ensuring that nutrient run offs from fertilisers from surrounding land do not affect the pond and the pond must be maintained cleaned and occasionally bottom mud must be removed.

Fish farming can be very damaging to the environment but in Czech and in Slovakia it has been carried on in a benign and eco friendly way for centuries. The modern large industrial agricultural systems with intensive use of fertiliser harms traditional fish farms as much as it harms the rest of the environment.

However, in a world where the fish in the sea are becoming fewer and with some species threatened with extinction fish farmed in ponds, and farmed in an ecologically friendly way without harming the surrounding environment helping biodiversity may be an important source of nutrition in the future.


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