Fakhri Houshmand’s husband suffers from a nervous system ailment. For years, the couple ate seafood twice a week on the advice of his doctor, but today, like so many other people, they cannot afford it.
They live in the ancient port city of Bandar Mahshahr on the Persian Gulf. In the 14th century, when the famous Moroccan traveler and writer Ibn Battuta visited the port, he wrote that fish was the only food to be found in the city.
But now a kilo of snapper, which a few months ago costed 18,000 toman, or $4.20, sells for 18,000 — close to $18. “We cannot even afford to buy from fish farms,” says Houshmand. “Before we did not even look at them, let alone buy them.” The shortage of feed for fish farms has led to an increasing mortality rate among farm-bred fish which, in turn, has driven up prices.
Haj Nemat Taghizadeh owns a trout fish farm on the road from Ahvaz to Khorramshahr in the province of Khuzestan. According to him, even before US sanctions, there were doubts that trout farms in the region could survive. Most of Taghizadeh’s fellow fish farmers could not generate a reasonable revenue because of the high volume of imported tilapia, coupled with their inability to modernize their farms. But now even the limited number of fish farms remaining are on the verge of bankruptcy because of the fish feed shortage. “Fifty percent of the cost of culturing fish is the feed,” says Taghizadeh. “Add to it the cost of importing fish spawn. And the price of medication for controlling aquatic diseases such as ‘white spot disease’ has made it even worse. That is why our ponds are full of dead fish.”
The Chinese Factor
The Houshmands are a middle-income family, but even if they could afford to buy fish, the variety available on the market is not enticing. “The fish from the sea is now several times more expensive,” Fakhri Houshmand says. “They say it is the fault of uncontrolled fishing by the Chinese. Regardless of whether what they say about the Chinese is true or not, our neighbors, who are native fishermen, are unemployed. Instead, they work as manual laborers. Rarely anybody goes to sea to fish.”
The dire situation for fishermen is not limited to Mahshahr. Prices for fish have gone up across the coastal cities of southern Iran, while the variety has fallen. The price of a kilo of seabream used to sell for 17,000 tomans ($4) in May, reached 38,000 tomans ($9) in July, and since August has been hovering over 45,000 tomans (close to $11).
Ilish, a popular fish in the area, which the locals grill with herbs and garlic and then garnish, sold earlier this year for around 25,000 ($6), but now costs as much as 90,000 (over $20) per kilo. Pomfret is priced at over 150,000 ($35) per kilo. Fish stalls no longer attract as many customers as they once did because people’s purchasing power has declined and they have a much reduced range of options.
Iraqi Currency is Better
According to Naghib Asakereh, a fisherman in Mahshahr, fish prices have gone up because fish populations have has declined. He says his fellow fishermen prefer to sell their catch to Iraqi border towns and be paid in the Iraqi currency, the dinar. “With the cost of renting boats, hiring workers and buying fuel, the Iraqi dinar is more profitable than the Iranian toman,” he says.
Asakereh says that sea fishing is no longer profitable because rarely is the catch sufficient enough to cover fishermen's expenses. “Sometimes we cannot catch enough even for our own household consumption,” he says. “I used to have big customers in Tehran, Isfahan and other cities. They ordered fish from me for years and I was able to supply them. But these days I have nothing to offer them, even though they contact me often.”
Now Asakereh buys from fish farms and sells it on to his customers. “I buy rainbow trout and salmon,” he says. “Of course, authentic salmon costs 250,000 tomans ($60) per kilo — what we buy and sell is not genuine salmon. Sometimes the fish farmers add color pellets to the feed for fish like trout, which makes their meat red. Apparently people like it.”
He used to buy a kilo of farm-bred trout for 14,000 tomans (close to $3.40) and pseudo-salmon for 11,000 (around $2.7) from fish farmers, but he says these days he has to pay at least 25,000 (close to $6) for the trout.
Mohammad Shabani, the owner of Roudsar fish farm, says that if the situation continues this way, he and other farmers will have to feed their fish common kilka (sprats) instead of imported feed. “Of course, this has its own problems as well,” he says. “The first is that catching kilka is not possible in this season. Second, eating kilka means the fish do not grow as much as we want them to because kilka is not a good replacement for manufactured feed.” He adds that manufactured fish feed acts like anabolic steroids that bodybuilders use to build their muscles. Without feed, the fish remain weak and light and not fit for the market.
According to him, domestic fish food manufacturers, who used to annually produce around 4,000 tons of feed, now import their raw material from abroad, but this now means there is a shortage of fish food from every supplier he goes to. And it is not only the fish farmers of Khuzestan who face this situation. Masoud Chaseb, who breeds carp in the Qazvin area north of Khuzestan, has been forced to feed fish ground-up barley shoots. The solution is not ideal, and some fish have died.
According to Chaseb, the decline in the fish population and the rise in fish food are not the only reasons the price of fish has risen so rapidly. “Shortage of water and drought are also to blame for this dizzying upsurge in fish prices in recent months,” he says. “This year, even before the sanctions and the halt in imports, we lost a lot of fish because of the water shortage. All in all, this has been a terrible year for fish farmers and they have suffered extensive losses.”
With lamb selling from between 65,000 and 80,000 tomans ($16 to $19) per kilo, chicken available from between 12,000 to 15,000 tomans ($3 to $3.5) and beef from between 55,000 to 60,000 tomans ($13 to $14), the rising price of fish has made it even more difficult for Iranians to put protein on their dinner tables.
More on poverty in Iran:
Selling Body Parts to Survive, September 19, 2018
Can Iran Survive the Inflation Hike?, August 29, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: Bandar Abbas and Hormozgan Province, August 24, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: East Azerbaijan, August 23, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: An Introduction, July 11, 2018
Iranians Are 15% Poorer than a Decade Ago, January 9, 2018
Please Help Stop the Sale of This Baby Girl, October 5, 2017
More than 40% of Iranian Households Live Below the Poverty Line, October 2, 2017
Child Trafficking by the Truckload, July 7, 2017
Stories From Iran's "Kidney Street", February 28, 2016
Hundreds of Thousands of Tehranis Living In Poverty, June 16, 2015
Death of a Fruit-Seller: Is the Government to Blame?, April 23, 2015
Wasted Youth: The Hidden Trash Collectors of Tehran, December 2, 2014
Iran's Real Emerging Market: Kidneys, November 21, 2013