by Symela Touchtidou

Subtle taste – a rare delicacy from an unexpected place. Western Macedonia, located in northwestern Greece, is the only landlocked Region of the country. It is mainly known for its coal industry and secondly for its agricultural products. Lately, though, another industry is emerging: the freshwater fishing industry.

Lake Polyfytos

Created for electricity production, meant to outlive it.

In its core, the Polyfytos artificial reservoir. It is a funny turnout of fate. Lake Polyfytos is an artificial lake fed by the river Haliacmon, Greece’s longest river. The lake is cited in the regional unit of Kozani.

It was created by the homonymous Polyfytos dam. The dam was built in 1973, as a part of the Public Power Company (PPC) network of hydroelectric power plants that provided for the national electricity supply. The lake has grown to become home of a rich freshwater ecosystem.

Among the species that thrive in it is the crayfish.

Unknown origins

No one can really tell when and how the crayfish arrived in the lake. Panagiotis Aggelidis, professor and director of the Ichthyology laboratory of the Veterinary School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, first heard about them from a local fisherman, about a decade ago.

Fishermen in lake Polyfytos, source: N. Gampoura archive

He was invited to Kozani by the city’s mayor to give a speech on the potential of developing aquafarming in the region. He asked to see a sample of the Polyfytos crayfish and was impressed. “I found it to be of very good quality and believed there was possibility for feasible exploitation,” he remembers. “The fishermen told me that the quantities were large, and they also caused damage to their nets and to the fish they captured.” Things moved rapidly since. Local fisherman, a handful back in the early 2010s, started selling crayfish along with the other fish that came from the lake. They sold them mainly to merchants from Romania and Bulgaria, two European countries that highly appreciate freshwater fish and crustaceans.

The lake started attracting locals looking for a livelihood as the decarbonization process of the region had started. Western Macedonia suffers one of the highest unemployment rates in Greece.

Nowadays, 65 fishing boats cruise the lake, with 165 fishermen making a living out of it. Crayfish is one of their strongest products. Crayfish production amounts to about 40 tons per year. The average price is €3 per kilo but it can rise up to €4 per kilo at certain times. The main export markets are European countries (Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavian countries), Russia and China.

From sideline to growth driver

The money is good, but it could be better.

If only there was a fish auction. “We sell the crayfish to fishmongers who export them, and we also sell to a big Greek supermarket chain. The final price the consumer pays is around €14 per kilo,” Nikos Kourtidis, president of the professional fishermen of Lake Polyphytos explains to Greek Business File. “For years we have been trying to build the infrastructure that would give us the necessary certifications to be able to export the crayfish ourselves. Local authorities and the state have not helped us build the fish auction and the packaging facility we need. If the fishermen could sell as a Union, we would get higher prices. Now we have to sell to companies for the processing and churning out of the catches. Our crayfish reach markets all over Europe, in Russia, Moldova and even China. 90% of our production is exported.”

The potential is great

Nana Gampoura, local chef, with crayfish dishes

“The big-size crayfish of our lake are like small lobsters and are cooked the same way. You can serve them with pasta, red sauce, melted cheese. You can cook them with Kozani saffron, another famous product of our region. There are endless possibilities, the crayfish are very tasty and most importantly they are fresh. And they are transported abroad fresh,” Nana Gampoura, local chef and Deputy Mayor of the city of Servia explains.

She is a big fan of the Polyfytos lake crayfish and cooks them in a dozen different ways at her restaurant. She also believes that if a fish auction is created, it will highly benefit the region. The Administration of West Macedonia Region feels the same way. They are trying to solve the bureaucratic puzzle that would allow the building of the fish auction. What is needed right now is a law amendment by the Greek Ministry of Finance that will alter the land use regulation for the lakeside area. Currently, it only permits agricultural activities, not fishing.

“We have prepared all the paperwork and sent it to the Ministry,” Katerina Dadamogia, Regional Councilor of Western Macedonia told Greek Business File. “The law amendment is something we actively pursue. As we are told, the amendment is ready and just needs to be incorporated in a bill to pass through the Parliament.

Once this is done, the Region will proceed with the project.”

The Region is desperate for alternatives. The Greek government has announced that all PPC carbon plants will shut down by 2023. This means that the Western Macedonia region will lose about €1 billion yearly and more that 4,000 jobs will be terminated. Western Macedonia makes about 40% of its GDP by the PPC plans.

Katerina Dadamogia, regional councilor of W. Macedonia

Katerina Dadamogia is head of the Agri-Food Partnership of the Region of Central Macedonia, a partnership of 18 bodies to support and promote the products and cultural identity of the Region’s gastronomy. “For our Region, the agriculture and fishing sector are very high on our agenda,” she stresses. “We are also interested in developing a sustainable and competitive agri-food sector. Crayfish is a highly export-oriented activity, that we consider extremely useful for our Region.

We believe the sector can boost the local economy and we want to see it grow. Crayfish are popular in gourmet markets and stores and at fine dining restaurants, especially abroad, and we attach great importance to such activities.”

Floating solar panels vs Fishing

The fishermen of Lake Polyfytos were shocked to hear that a private company has asked for permission to place floating solar panels in the lake.

InterPhoton’s plans foresee the installation of two floating solar power plants of 250 MW each at 3 of the lake’s 73 km2.

Furthermore, PC Renewables, a subsidiary of Public Power Corporation wants to install 50 MW in floating solar power

plants at the Polyfytos artificial reservoir. Both companies argue that the solar panels will not disturb the natural balance of the lake, allowing all other activities to continue as now.

Risotto with crayfish and Kozani saffron

But environmental groups, experts and local authorities disagree.

“They will destroy a natural landscape, and primary production will certainly be affected,” Aggelidis says. “The phytoplankton will have no sun to grow, to produce organic substances that the mussels eat, depriving thus the crayfish of their main food. Of course, it all depends on the layout and the extent that the floating panels will have.”

The Municipality of Kozani, in collaboration with the nearby municipalities of Servia and Velventos, submitted an objection to the Regulatory Authority for Energy (RAE) against InterPhoton’s plans.

Crayfish from L.-Polyfytos, source: N. Kourtidis archive

The Regional Administration of Western Macedonia said it would propose the suspension of licensing for renewable energy plants until the spatial planning and legal framework for Western Macedonia are finalized.

“We want Renewables, we are not against them,” Dadamogia says. “We want to become a ‘green’ Region, but we are against disorderly deployment. In the case of Lake Polyfytos, placing photovoltaics on the surface is an unjustified act, since it is not preceded by a study on the possible consequences of the panels on the activities in the lake. On February 1, we submitted photovoltaics, but we need to have an environmental assessment for them and have a concrete plan.”

This article was published in the March/April 2021 issue of Greek Business File, available here.