On a cool summer morning, the sun rises through the bullrushes at Rusnė pier while the hum of boat motors can be heard in the distance. Some residents are still sleeping but the town's fishermen are loading their boats with fish crates and preparing to “blow off some steam” as they do every morning.
© DELFI / Mindaugas Ažušilis

Delfi's journalists joined the town's fishermen during their daily work in the spring to see how Lithuanian fish makes it to our tables. Their journey began in Rusnė, a mecca for Lithuanian fishermen.

The team of fishermen they joined had worked in the industry for more than 20 years.

“I like it and we don't know anything else,” said the team's leader, the most talkative of the bunch.

When asked whether he liked working with the same people every day, he said that in his line of work, experience and “working without speaking” was very important.

“We each know what we're all responsible for. We don't have to pointlessly discuss who has to do what, and this lets our minds disconnect from what we do. Besides, we've talked our fill over these 20 years,” he laughed.

All three of the fishermen are from Western Lithuania and all three of them now live in Rusnė. According to them, the fisherman's trade determined where they would live – and none of them resisted.

“Everything in the country has changed, but we've just kept on going out onto the lagoon. I think that it's great that we have jobs,” said another one of the fishermen who was steering their boat out to the Curonian Lagoon.

These fisherman are convinced that rumours that there had once been more fish in the lagoon are just that – rumours. They believe that fish numbers have always fluctuated, with some seasons bringing more and others bringing less.

When asked whether their wives were upset about their husbands coming home very day smelling like fish, the fisherman laughed and said that their loved ones had gotten used to the smell. They also said that Rusnė just wouldn't be Rusnė without the smell of fish.

The fishermen's pay for their work usually depends on the amount of fish they've caught.

“They're not biting well this year so of course we're uneasy,” they revealed. Representatives of the profession say that this is one of the largest drawbacks of work in this field.

However, some professional fishermen work for companies that pay them set wages with bonuses or percentages paid for the amount of fish they catch.

The idiosyncrasies of the fishing business

The life of a fisherman isn't easy – when the season changes, the fishing methods change as well. Now that it's summer, fishermen are fishing with marine traps rather than the nets they use in the spring. This distinction is tightly regulated by Lithuanian environmental protection agencies.

Many amateur fishermen in Lithuania believe that Lithuania's fish businessmen live in cushy conditions, but the fishermen themselves say that there are plenty of professional fishing regulations in the Curonian Lagoon.

“The main fishing season runs from 1 September until 20 April. That's when we can fish with nets,” said Ramūnas Krisčiūnas, the head of the Jūros Vėjas wholesale frozen fish and fish product company.

In the cold season, commercial fisherman also fish on the frozen Curonian Lagoon. As wonderful as this may seem to amateur fishermen looking forward to ice fishing, professional fishermen do not enjoy the process quite as much.

“Essentially, even during the cold season, our fishing tools remain the same – a fishing net. However, during the winter we set them differently. Fishermen must drill holes in the ice and pull the nets under those holes. This, without a doubt, is much more complicated. And, of course, the very low temperature can make work difficult,” said Kriščiūnas.

What the buyer needs to know

The commercial fishermen say that the most valuable fish are eels and salmon, though they are not allowed to catch salmon. After that are zander, pike, burbot, asp, bass, vimba and roach.

Fishermen say that eel and zander prices have risen the most in recent years. “I remember a time when zanders would cost 4-5 Litas, and now they cost about €4. Of course, this price change didn't happen in one year. I'm talking about 7-10 years.”

For other fish it’s a different story. The market for bream from Lithuania has disappeared and fishermen are feeling it.

“There's a big problem with bream. Absolutely nobody wants them. Before, when we hadn't lost the Russian market, bream were rather popular, but now we almost don't have anywhere to sell them,” said Kriščiūnas.

Buyers should also know that fish caught in the Curonian lagoon and further afield are processed differently. Fish caught in the lagoon are not gutted, but fish caught in more distant and larger seas, like cod, are gutted to help preserve their freshness.

Buyers should also pay attention to the eyes and cheeks of a fish when shopping about. If the fish's eyes are cloudy and concave and the cheeks are white, it means the fish is old and it's best not to buy it.

What happens in warehouses

In general, fresh fish must make it to the store within 5 days of its being caught. Usually, commercial fishermen transfer their fish to warehouses owned by a retailer chain within 24 hours.

“When the fish enters the main warehouse, it is sorted and separated. Stores order various amounts – larger ones need more while smaller ones need less. It also depends on the assortment at the store,” said Norfa retail network warehouse manager Rita Gulbinienė.

Retailers say that it's impossible to set how much fresh fish will be available, but that buyers most often buy carp, cod and pike, making these fish the most in demand from fishermen.

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