Farming on the front line: a Ukrainian perspective

Ukraine’s fish farming industry has been devastated by the Russian invasion, but farmers are also helping to feed the troops and displaced people, explains Andrey Honcharov, the CEO of Ukrainian Fish Farming Company.

5 December 2022, at 8:00am
Andrey Honcharov headshot
Honcharov is the CEO of Ukrainian Fish Farming Company

Honcharov produces pike, pike-perch and carp across 6,500 hectares of ponds in the Khmelnitsky region of Ukraine

He produces carp, pike and pike-perch in 6,500 hectares of ponds in the war-torn country’s Khmelnitsky region and, despite the war, has ambitions to modernise and expand production on his farm.

How has the invasion affected your operations?

The working conditions are very difficult now. Repeated shelling by Russian troops has led to regular outages of heating and electricity. The internet and communications typically only function for three to four hours a day.

Although there have been no active hostilities around the farm, many of our employees went to fight, so there is a significant staff shortage.

Refugees from the war moved to the farm with their families, many whose houses were destroyed still live with us today.

In February, we canned 70 tonnes of fish and, together with volunteers, handed them over to the occupied territories, as well as to organisations that were engaged in the reception and resettlement of refugees. For three months after the start of the war, we worked seven days a week with very short sleep breaks.

carp harvesting from a pond
Harvesting carp from one of Honcharov's ponds

Repeated shelling by Russian troops has led to regular outages of heating and electricity at the farm

Another problem has been the lack of fuel for the vehicles which are needed for stocking our reservoirs with fish. It has also became even more difficult to source juvenile fish: most of our suppliers were in the occupied territories or in the war zone.

Can you give some examples of how the invasion affected your fellow fish farmers?

Not all farms have survived. Ivankivsky fish farm in the Kyiv region was under occupation. They fed their fish to the population just like that, distributed it, because there was no other supply.

The Pecheneg fish farm in the Kharkov region was completely bombed. When the Russians retreated, they blew up the dam, let the water down and mined the entire territory. So it’s not currently operational.

Donetsk fish factory was the largest aqua company in Ukraine, consisting of five farms. Only half of one of the farms survived after the Russian aggression. The rest have been physically destroyed, blown up so that there is no water, it is impossible to work. This is one I personally know.

How has your life changed from a broader perspective?

The war changed everything in my life and the lives of my loved ones, relatives and colleagues. It is impossible to understand how all these events can take place in our time. It is impossible not to be disgusted by those who planned and continue to do terrible, inhuman and cruel things. To those who decided that they could wipe out an entire state and nation with its history, culture and population from the face of the Earth.

I evacuated part of the family from the combat zone in the early days of the war. Under shelling, we managed to evacuate the children without injury. We drove 350 km in 28 hours and the children were very scared. Now they are in Europe and, no matter how difficult it has been not to see them for eight months, I am very grateful that they are not witnessing everything that is happening in Ukraine. I want to express my deep gratitude to all Europeans who took part in helping our women and children during the evacuation.

A doctor I know told me that Ukrainians have aged 15 years during the nine months of the war. I think that's an understatement. The whole nation is in pain from what is happening, for all those people who died, were injured, were brutally tortured in the occupation, lost loved ones and relatives.

I have lost contact with many close people, unfortunately, I don’t even know if they are still alive. Probably the most cherished dream, besides speedy victory in this war, for all my close people is the dream of getting together on a quiet, peaceful evening at a huge table and just having dinner together.

Could you tell me a little about your farm and how it developed before the invasion?

carp schooling at the water's surface
Farmed carp

Last year, Ukrainian Fish Farming Company increased fish production by 30 percent and now produce 2 tonnes of fish per hectare

Before the war, we were satisfied with the dynamics and made plans for 10 years ahead. We successfully managed to reproduce pike-perch. We built a hatchery for carp and grass carp. We also learned how to produce caviar from pike.

Last year we increased fish production by 30 percent and now produce 2 tonnes of fish per hectare. Our goal is to reach 3 tonnes per hectare. Overall we produce 1,000 tonnes of common carp, 300 tonnes of grass carp, 500 tonnes of silver carp, 120 tonnes of pike and 200 tonnes of other species.

We repaired dams at all farms at our own expense, without subsidies – which costs over €500,000 a year. Water from our farms is used to cool two nuclear power plants on the Pivdennyi Buh (Southern Bug) River. The other two lakes are in nature reserves and support rare and endangered bird species.

We have built five fish traps to harvest the fish, which allow six fishermen to catch 20 tonnes of fish per day without fish pumps. I want to improve the indicator by improving the fishing technology.

fish ova in tanks
Carp ova in the hatchery

Honcharov built a hatchery for carp and grass carp before the war broke out

We use 12,500 tonnes of feed per season – from April until mid-October – the fish also eat natural food including phytoplankton, zoobenthos and aquatic vegetation.

What inspired you to pursue a career in aquaculture?

I have had an aquarium at home since childhood. In 1991-1995, when I was at school and there were difficult times in the family and in the country, I even received a small income from this hobby. From the 5th-6th grade, I spawned fish and sold fry to amateur aquarists. My father was then a researcher at a metallurgical enterprise in Dzerzhinsk, in eastern Ukraine, my mother was an economist. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was horrendous inflation and wage arrears. With the money I got from my hobby, I bought various algae and equipped a large aquarium.

But besides the aquarium, from childhood I learned to hold a fishing rod in my hands, earlier than a pen or pencil. I spent the whole summer with my grandfather, he is an avid fisherman, and from his house it was possible to get to the Dnieper River by bike in 10 minutes. I spent almost every day fishing.

dog running alongside a fish pond
Harvesting carp with their four-legged supervisor

The Ukrainian Fish Farming Company is Honcharov's third foray into aquaculture

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, my parents decided to try their hand at farming. They got a pond and started to grow fish. But it was problematic for them. I was already working in Kyiv at that time. I came on vacation to see what they had and realised that they needed help, so I joined my father and we made it profitable, working together from 2004 to 2013.

At this time, my father died, and I had to take over his machine-building enterprise, so I had to sell the fishery. I restored and developed the company, found a good manager and made him a co-owner. After this period, I was finally able to rest and I travelled a lot to fish in Ukraine and Europe. On one of these fishing trips I met one of the investors in the Ukrainian Fish Farming company. Now I am engaged in an aqua farm for the third time.

What was the state of the Ukrainian aquaculture sector before the war?

Basically, all fish farms suffered losses. The business required large investments and brought little return. Only this year, the state realised that there is such an industry as aquaculture. Before that, there was no support and excessive regulation.

Common carp and mirror carp in a bucket
Harvested mirror carp and common carp

Ukraine's fish farming sector has seen new investment and interest in the last four years

In fact, after the 2000s, due to changes in legislation, practically no new fish farms were created. It was impossible to rent ponds or develop a business. Only in the last three to four years have big businessmen and financiers begun to look towards aquaculture. Private capital entered and began to restore and build enterprises from scratch in the Odessa region, in the central part of Ukraine, in the Kyiv region and in the east of Ukraine. Now farms, hatcheries and feedmills are developing and the reservoirs continue to be restored.

What were the main problems you faced on the farm before the invasion?

We only use 30 percent of our ponds due to shortages of juvenile fish, feed, production equipment, personnel, technology and finance.

For example, this season we bought fish for €850,000. We would like to buy more, but Ukraine did not have the necessary volumes, and we could not bring them from Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary.

Another problem is related to the need to modernise production. For example, we are forced to rent vehicles from Polish and Czech companies for transporting fish.

Carp fingerlings
Carp fingerlings

Honcharov's ponds are too large to successfully produce juvenile fish

We understand that the size of our ponds is too large for the survival of fry. Our options are either to start using recirculating aquaculture systems for our juvenile fish, or to team up with other companies that produce fry.

When do you think conditions on your farm can return to normal and what will it take?

The fact that Ukraine has survived and turned the tide of the war gives hope for victory. And after the victory, we will need to rebuild and restore everything that was destroyed and broken. It is with thoughts of peace and further work for the benefit of the country that every day our entire team begins a new working day.

How do you think you and others can help rebuild the sector when the time is right?

We would like to build our own feed factory. And to further develop capacities for fish processing, filleting and de-boning. After the start of the war, we launched the first processing line at a private plant based on a farm, and we want to further develop in this direction.

Many customers in Europe are looking for processed fish and we’d like to increase production up to 20,000 tonnes by 2035 by changing technologies, innovations, developing cage farming and building bypass channels for cages to increase carp production. This will allow us to supply to the European carp market throughout the year.

In the EU there is emergency money for Ukrainian aquaculture. In addition, the EU finances aquaculture through the Horizon programme. We hope to join the project by joining The Network of Aquaculture Centres in Central and Eastern Europe (NACEE). To participate in the common strategy for Europe for the next 10 years, we see NACEE and the European Aquaculture Technology and Innovation Platform (EATIP) as potential partners.

We had very good meetings with the representatives of these two European associations. The head of NACEE, Laszlo Varadi, was in Khmelnitsky at a fish factory 10 years ago. He is impressed with the changes we have achieved to date. And EATIP have expressed a keen interest to help us reach the European market. We and our partners in Europe are aware of the essential role Ukraine plays in food security and sustainable development. Also in many European countries, and in Hungary in particular, there are national innovation platforms. One of our goals is to find partners among European countries and attract investments.

Can aquaculture help your country during this difficult time?

harvesting fish at sunset
Harvesting carp at sunset

"Everyone understands that the food crisis does not exist on paper, but in reality."

Big business in recent years has become interested in investing in the agricultural sector, at first in more understandable sectors such as crop production, grain growing, horticulture and animal husbandry. Now interest has turned to aquaculture. Because everyone understands that the food crisis does not exist on paper, but in reality. And therefore, food production is a very promising area, important for ensuring food security in Ukraine and Europe.

The sector will grow after the end of the war and after the Ministry of Agricultural looks in the direction of fish farmers. This is already happening. They have begun to realise that aquaculture is a very important source of products.

For insights into how the war is impacting the Russian aquaculture sector view this Fish Site follow-up feature. .