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Raphael Vassallo

On the menu: slightly braised tuna reasoning…

Rather than argue that we are catching less fish because of reduced quotas...why don't we admit that the quotas are reduced because we are catching less fish?

Raphael Vassallo
26 March 2012, 12:00am
Does anyone know if nominations for the annual Hugo & Nebula science fiction awards are still open? If so, I have a feeling the draft report for 'An Aquaculture Strategy for Malta' - launched last week by the Rural Affairs Ministry - would give the best of this year's entries a damn good run for their money.

OK, so perhaps you haven't read it... yet. But it is more than conceivable that you will have flicked past various accounts given by practically all local newspapers. And all under variations of the same headline, too. Stuff like 'Tuna fattening industry set to make EUR73 million by 2025...'

But you have to read the full report to appreciate the sheer creativity that went into its production. For instance (and to be fair, the same news reports did acknowledge this, though they carried the same misleading headlines anyway), those details of 'EUR73 million by 2025' come from purely speculative economic projections which are...ooh, let's just say 'slightly optimistic'.

Here is the relevant quote: "The economic impact analysis of the tuna production scenarios illustrates that at the high production target of 7,000 tonnes per annum (in line with 2007 volumes) the industry could generate a total GVA of €73m and support direct employment of 233 employees and indirect and induced employment of 804."

Please bear the following details in mind: 'could (not 'will') generate', and, much more significantly: 'at the high production target of 7,000 t pa'.

Ah, of course. If you're going to pull a figure out of a hat... why not choose the total tuna annual production for what happens to have been Malta's absolute record year for the same industry...?

Honestly, I could almost stop right there and dismiss the whole report - or at least, those parts relevant to the future contributions of the tuna industry to Malta's coffers/employment rates - as nothing more than a classic case of wishful thinking.

But even so, one can still be reasonable in what one 'wishfully thinks' about. Just imagine the case of a global bank director (or corporation CEO, etc), choosing to base his projections of future profits only on the same bank's most spectacularly profitable year in history. It's such an obvious recipe for disaster that even I (Jamie Oliver that I ain't) could probably rustle it up in my kitchen.  

In this case, however, matters are greatly exacerbated by a number of improbability factors. Not only is the prognostic itself optimistic to an almost daft degree... but it is also based on an record haul that is highly unlikely to ever again be repeated, because - and ironically this is also written in the same report, though no one seems to have joined all the dots - the total fishing quota for the European Commission in 2007, which had made Malta's 7,000-tonne statistic achievable in the first place, has since been lowered.

And there was a reason for it being lowered, you know. For even in 2007, scientific opinion was virtually undivided on the serious threats to the long-time survival of the Mediterranean blue-fin tuna. So much so, that the following year, ICCAT's own scientists - ICCAT is the international industry regulatory body for tuna, by the way - recommended a drastic reduction of the same quota to 15,000 tonnes per year: arguing that this was the only way, short of banning the industry altogether, to prevent the collapse of the spawning stock.

[Incidentally, the reduced quota was in itself just over double the amount of tuna that Malta had fattened and sold in 2007... but applicable to the whole of the EU.]

Under immense pressure from the same EU - and bear in mind that the EU Fisheries Commissioner was Maltese at the time - ICCAT ignored this advice, and instead set the quota at 22,000 tonnes per annum.

The same quota has since been reduced again, and now stands at 12,900 tonnes a year. And of course, the MRRA blames this series of reductions for Malta's drop in profits between 2007 and 2011. They even say so in the report... and incredibly, no one seems to have spotted the rather outstanding mathematical improbability of this claim.

Let's go back to the draft report, shall we? "The production of tuna from Malta has declined from 7,000t in 2007 to what is expected to be less than 1,000t in 2011..."

OK, now get your calculators ready, folks, and... by my count, that's a drop of around 85%.

And yet, over the same timeframe the quotas were reduced from 29,500 tonnes (2007), to 12,900 tonnes (2011): in other words, by 56%.

Clearly, this is not concomitant with the claim that Malta's 85% drop in tuna production is solely attributable to a 56% ICCAT quota reduction. The numbers just don't add up... at least, not to a total explanation.

Quite frankly, I would have thought it makes infinitely more sense to approach the same question from the clean opposite direction: i.e., that the quota has been reduced precisely because fishermen are progressively catching less and less tuna each year... as indicated by our own 85% drop. And by 'less' I don't mean just numbers of fish landed. Much more significant from an ecological point of view, it's the size of individual specimens caught that is getting smaller each year.

Even now, ICCAT's own scientists still argue the quotas have not been lowered enough to guarantee stocks recovery; which means that future yields are likely to get progressively smaller, until the entire industry is forced to acknowledge that it has finally fished itself out of the water.

Faced with all this: how on earth can the Rural Affairs Ministry be so smugly confident that... not only will existing tuna stocks recovery programmes be a guaranteed success (something that everyone, both in and outside the industry, seriously doubts)... and not only will the quotas be once again jacked up to their 2007 levels as a result... but on top of all that, Malta's own yield will automatically return to what fishermen themselves talk of as a 'all-time record year' for tuna landings?

I don't know. It suddenly makes all those science fiction novels sound that much more plausible...  

Claude Caruana
Aquaculture has great potential in Malta. But only if it distances itself from the part of the sector which is based on criminal activity, fraud and scam - namely the practices of buying illegally caught tuna, putting them in a cage in Malta and exporting them as "farmed" (but charging the Japanese the price of "wild" tuna). This practice is threatening to make the blue fin tuna extinct in the Mediterranean. The sooner genuine aquaculture distances itself from this racket, the better its’ chances of survival.