By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's fisheries minister has declared war on a thriving black market in date shell mussels, vowing to enforce a widely flouted ban on harvesting of the endangered species in the hope of saving his country's Adriatic seabed.
The mussels, oblong-shaped like their fruity namesake the Arabian date, are harvested by divers who inflict untold damage on the ecosystem by using hammers and chisels to extract them from rocks and coral reefs.
Albania's former communist regime outlawed the harvesting of date mussels but the delicacy has been openly sold, served and eaten during two decades of democracy despite the continued ban.
"Gathering date shells severely damages the underwater system, limestone rocks and coral belt, so I ask you to respect the law that bans harvesting of the mussel just as everywhere else in Europe," the minister, Edmond Panariti, told a group of fish traders and restaurateurs last week.
"We cannot allow them to turn our coast into a desert," he said of the harvesters, noting that one square meter of rock or coral reef is destroyed for every plate of date shell spaghetti.
Panariti, who took office in September, first vowed last month to halt the "barbaric" trade, but was dismissed as naive and openly defied two days later by a fellow cabinet minister who dined on date shells at a Tirana restaurant, an aide said.
Undeterred, Panariti has now redoubled his efforts, promising arrest and trial for anybody who flouts the ban.
"We are committed to the highest standards of fishing and processing fish and mussels," Panariti told Reuters.
The harvesting of date shells is banned along the whole Adriatic coast, with the exception of a thin strip of sea that belongs to Bosnia. In the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, one online seafood shop offers home delivery at just over $30 per kg.
They are hard to find in European Union member states Slovenia and Croatia, where offenders face fines of hundreds of euros. But they can still be enjoyed in secrecy by those in the know in Montenegro.
In the Albanian coastal town of Vlore at the weekend, a plate of spaghetti with date shells featured on a restaurant menu for 800 leks ($7.6) and risotto for 900 leks.
"I really hope they mean it and don't just enforce it for a fortnight and later forget about it," said a fishing expert who declined to be named.
Others said Panariti's hard line had come too late for the Albanian coast.
Gjergj Luca, a major Albanian trader in seafood, told Reuters: "Our problem is that we first destroy our fauna and then remind ourselves we need to save it."
($1 = 104.3500 Albanian leks)
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo and Petar Komnenic in Podgorica; Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones)