By Elvis Nabolli
The organization tasked with protecting Albania’s environmental jewel is accused of running a protection racket for the illegal fishermen who are destroying its fish.
The Organization for the Management of Fishing in Lake Skadar, OMP, is accused of running an extortion scheme from fishermen who use illegal means such as electric generators to catch fish from the shores.
Interviews with local fishermen, who have broken the law for years by catching fish with generators, suggest that the OMP has been running a simple but very effective racket ever since the government transferred stewardship of the lake to it in February 2014.
Every fisherman who practices this form of illegal fishing on Lake Skadar through electric generators or other means pays the OMP a bribe, based on the bounty of his catch. In return, the organization does not report their illegal activities to the police.
“The OMP has transformed the lake in its own private pond,” one of the men who uses an illegal generator to catch fish told BIRN. “They do as they want and play as they please,” he added.
Environmental groups say that illegal fishing methods, such as the use of electric generators, have had a devastating impact on fish stocks in Skadar Lake over the last two decades.
The fishermen told BIRN that before the OMP took over safeguarding the lake they had to deal with the border police, or with the lake’s rangers, but now whoever pays the organization can fish undisturbed.
Several fisherman in independent interviews said the racket is run by the head of the OMP, Arjan Çinari, and by people close to him in the organization.
Before running the OMP, Çinari was a police officer. In 2006 he was arrested by the Office of Internal Affairs in the Ministry of Interior, accused of dereliction of duty. A court later absolved him of charges.
Queried about the claims that his organization was extorting money from local fishermen, Çinari denied wrongdoing.
He also said that since the OMP took control of the lake, fishing with the use of illegal electric generators had come to a halt.
“This has not happened and will not happen,” he told BIRN. “This would be like a homeowner allowing a thief into his house. It does not make any sense,” Çinari added.
The OMP was created in 2003 and is a member organisation of Albania’s federations of internal and border water basins, which was created in Tirana in 2011.
The OMP manages the Lake Skadar water basin based on a contract signed with the Ministry of Agriculture in August 2013 and on an agreement signed in February 2014 “On the protection of ecological balance and the rational usage of fish sources from Lake Skadar.”
Fishing with electric generators on the lake takes place day and night, depending on the season.
One fisherman took this reporter to a part of the lake that was full of reeds, where about a dozen small boats were parked.
This was the spot where the fishermen who use electric generators parked themselves, he explained.
“They fish at night using torches. In spring, when the water level on the lake rises, they fish near this spot by day,” he said pointing to the reeds.
Alminda Mema, manager of the Ahrus environmental center in the city of Shkodra, said illegal fishing on Lake Skadar remained routine and was having a devastating impact.
“This phenomenon not only has a negative environmental impact, it has a social and economic impact as well,” she explained.
“By reducing the quality and quantity of the fish stock, it lowers the chances of legal fisherman earning a living,” she added.
“It is troubling that, despite repeated checks by the OMP and the pressure of the law to stop illegal fishing, it is still continuing,” Mema continued.
Local fishermen say they the OMP inspectors turn a blind eye to illegal activities – for the right price.
One fisherman told BIRN that fishing with electric generators was widespread in the Shkodra area, stretching from delta of the Bojana River to the region of Malsia e Madhe and the border with Montenegro.
The fisherman noted that those who illegally used dynamite to stun and catch fish avoided the police, while those using generators simply paid them OMP off.
“We have to pay a lot of money to the OMP, who have transformed the lake into their own private property,” one fisherman said.
“The permits come from Arjan [Çinari]; he will let you fish with a generator without anyone troubling you, even though using a generator is illegal,” he added.
According to the fisherman, Çinari’s cronies in the organization charge each fisherman who uses a generator between 3,000 to 5,000 lek (22 to 36 euro), a day, depending on the size of the catch.
“Whoever talks to Arjan has a deal; he is the boss here,” the fisherman said. “Otherwise, they will sequester your fish and hand you over to the police,” he added.
Another fisherman interviewed by BIRN also said that the bribes paid to OMP officials ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 lek a day.
“Without paying the organization, no fisherman ventures out,” he said.
The fisherman told BIRN that people still fished in Lake Skadar using electric generators, despite the damage it causes, because they needed to earn a living.
“What can we do, we have to eat,” one of them said. “This is our job and we know nothing better.”
A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity told BIRN, that there had been constant rumours that Çinari’s organization extorted money from fishermen.
“Fishermen who have been stopped by the border police with generators have implicated the OMP, but no charges against it have ever been brought officially,” the policeman said.
Responding to those allegations, Çinari repeated his claim that he and his team had stamped out the illegal use of generators.
“The 400 [boats with] generators that used to fish there illegally have almost all disappeared,” he said.
“The OMP has been the only organization to crack down on this type of fishing, because it knows about the devastation it causes,” Çinari added.