Hunters' federation FKNK this week took the opportunity of the third anniversary of a landmark European Court ruling, delivered on September 10 2009, to slam the government's plans for a limited spring hunting season next year.
However, Birdlife Malta questioned FKNK's demands for higher bag limits when existing quotas are not being reached.
"As things stand today, it is clear that we are still far away from applying a fair derogation that reflects both the ruling by the European Court of Justice, as well as the legitimate aspirations of Maltese and Gozitan hunters and trappers," FKNK president Joe Perici Calascione said at a press event at Buskett on Monday, before association members released a number of captive-bred Turtle Doves as a symbolic gestures.
Referring to government's decision to arbitrarily set a maximum bag-limit of 20,000 birds (both Turtle Dove and Quail) for the ongoing autumn season, Perici Calascione argued that the number was not only laughable in itself, but also far below the quota one would arrive at by applying the scientific criteria laid down by the same European Commission the government was officially trying to appease.
"A maximum limit of 20,000 would make sense if the total population of both those species was only around 20 or 30 times higher. But in reality, the population figures for those species in Europe alone are between 8.4 and 14.1 million for Quail, and between 10.5 and 21.6 million for turtle-dove," FKNK secretary Lino Farrugia said.
According to 2009 data compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the official figures for the global population of Quail was between 35 and 300 million for Turtle Dove, between 20 and 100 million, leading the IUCN to classify both species as "of least concern".
"It follows therefore that using the criteria established by the ECJ, a bag-limit of less than 200,000 Turtle Dove and 300,000 Quail could be considered to respect the court ruling," Perici Calascione added. "So why did government set a bag-limit that is 10 times lower?"
Instead of commenting or rebutting FKNK's claims, Nicholas Barbara, Birdlife Malta's Conservation Manager, chose to discuss the way the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) controls and verifies bag limits for Turtle Dove and Quail.
"I refer you to MEPA's reports on the spring hunting derogation period. Hunters, during both spring hunting seasons of 2011 and 2012, did not reach their allocated quotas for the season," Barbara said.
According to the MEPA reports, during the 15 days of spring hunting season in 2011, 5,642 licensed hunters reported catching only 1,842 Turtle Doves and 366 Quail. In 2012, during 16 days of spring hunting season, 6,110 licensed hunters reported catching only 805 Turtle Dove and 151 Quail.
Both figures were much lower than the quotas allowed by government for any of the two spring hunting seasons being 2,500 and 9,000 for Quail and Turtle Dove respectively.
"So our question is, if hunters are not reportedly catching even the allocated spring hunting quotas they are conceded by the Maltese government, what is the use of even considering increasing quotas?" Barbara asked.
Asked specifically what percentage of the two species' global population regularly migrates over Malta, FKNK secretary Lino Farrugia admitted that one could not base Malta's bag-count on global figures alone. But even taking only the minimum number as the basis for calculation, he argued that Malta's maximum bag-limit should still be much higher than 20,000.
"The formula that the Commission uses is to take 1% of the total breeding population. If you had to apply this formula to the populations of Quail only in those countries where they tend to migrate over Malta, you would be left with a bag-limit of around 79,000," Farrugia said.
Turning to the regulations drawn up for this year's autumn season (opened September 1) the FKNK complained that government was adding 'more restrictions' than were actually imposed by the either the Commission or the European Court.
Perici Calascione pointed out that according to the implications of the 2009 ECJ ruling, the Commission is concerned with how many birds are shot throughout the season, but not with other aspects, such as setting a limit of the number of specimens shot per hunter, per day.
"That is an imposition from Malta's side, not from Europe. We can't understand why government insists on adding more obstacles than it has to according the court ruling," Calascione said.
MEPA's autumn hunting season report of 2011 to 2012 says: "During the period of 1st September 2011 to 31st January 2012, a total of 4,302 Turtle Doves and 6,281 Quails were caught."
Nicholas Barbara explained that there are no limits for the amounts of Quail and Turtle Dove caught or even hunting licenses during the autumn season but around 10,000 licensed hunters in Malta and Gozo did not even catch an average of a Turtle Dove and a Quail each last autumn.
"So again, what is the use of quadrupling quotas when not even an average of one Turtle Dove or one Quail per hunter seems to be reached?" Barbara asked before adding that both Turtle Dove and Quail species are declining in Europe.
However, Maltese hunters are conceded a two-week spring hunting season as well as an autumn season to hunt both these species.
"Rather than arguing how more numbers should be caught, we should be arguing how we are to set about helping these species recover their European populations, and not seek ways and means of making the hunt ever more unsustainable," Barbara said.
It is about time that Malta comes in line with the requirements of the Birds Directive addressing the conservation concerns of the time, rather than falling to voting stunts according to Barbara.
"Up until now both major political parties have remained numb on these issues, misguiding the electorate on what they are proposing in this regard," Barbara said.