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Action against polluting fish farms: Cabinet supports emergency enforcement orders

Tuna farm operators all found to be in breach of regulations, including an operator whose permit covers the breeding of sea bream and sea bass

Miriam Dalli
30 August 2016, 7:14pm
The sludge is the result of oil from defrosting sardines and mackerel left in small feeding cages. Bubbles are formed once the oil gets closer to the coast, forming the sludge
The sludge is the result of oil from defrosting sardines and mackerel left in small feeding cages. Bubbles are formed once the oil gets closer to the coast, forming the sludge
Operators of tuna fish farms who persist in breaching regulations and ignoring enforcement orders issued by the Planning Authority, may face emergency enforcements orders (EEOs): this order will allow the authorities to take action against the operators without the right to appeal.

An emergency enforcement order can only be issued by the Planning Authority once a ‘certificate of approval’ is issued by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). This is done after the ERA asserts that the breach of regulations is the cause of "imminent damage" to the environment.

No date has been set as to when such EEOs will be issued. Environment Minister José Herrera insisted that such a decision depended on the ERA, an autonomous authority.

“But I can assure you that the ERA will be taking its decision swiftly,” the minister said, when pressed.

Planning Authority executive chairman Johann Buttigieg said the EEO would come into force if the operators fail to take action in the stipulated timeframes as listed in the enforcement notifications issued by the PA.

Operators who persist in breaching the regulations also risk losing their fish as the authorities would step in to release the tuna into the sea.

An ad hoc committee, set up on order of the environment minister, has concluded that the sludge repeatedly witnessed on the east side of the island derives from fish farms.

During a press briefing held this afternoon, Herrera – flanked by junior ministers Deborah Schembri and Roderick Galdes – said the Cabinet of Ministers had been briefed over the situation and support was registered to increase fines and introduce a regulatory framework that adequately regulates the operations of fish-farming.

Following years of complaints by swimmers and bathers, the authorities – including the aquaculture department – have finally admitted that the sludge and foam that has been plaguing Malta’s coast is the result of incorrect feeding practices.

Aerial photos taken by the authorities show feeding pans full of frozen sardines and mackerel. The sludge is the result of oil coming from the sardines and mackerel to defrost in the sea.

Tuna is being fed sardines and mackerel which is left to defrost
Tuna is being fed sardines and mackerel which is left to defrost
According to ERA chief executive Reuben Abela, the bubbles are formed once the oil gets closer to the coast, forming the sludge.

The sludge problem, which has been dragging on for years, is also the result of blatant breaches by the operators, the three Cabinet members said.

Six operators have been found to either have cages bigger than permitted – both in circumference and depth – more cages than declared, operating an undeclared tuna farm and breeding fish more than they should.

“The reality is that this sector has gone unregulated for years and the problem has finally exploded,” Herrera told journalists.

The ERA, the Planning Authority and the aquaculture department will be working together to monitor the industry. Galdes, who reiterated that the fish-farming industry had grown over years without a proper framework regulating it, said officials will be constantly monitoring the fish farms.

“New regulations to be published will also provide the department with the necessary tools and power to strengthen its monitoring,” he said.

Describing the action being planned by the government as “draconian” and insisting that he will not allow the operators to continue abusing, Herrera said that solving the issue had become his priority.

“We cannot treat our waters but allow such a sludge to contaminate our sea … this is a mortal sin,” the minister said, who described the sludge pollution as “almost a national crisis”.

Schembri, parliamentary secretary for planning, explained that operators only require a planning permit to operate, without an operating licence.

“[The Cabinet] has discussed this issue and we want to reach a point where an operating licence is mandatory. We want to find a solution that encourages people to regulate themselves,” she said.

Schembri confirmed that daily fines for infringements are set to increase. This will not only affect operators of fish farms but anyone whose business is sea-related.

Two operators are facing enforcement orders by the Planning Authority. Both cases are at appeals stage and the hearings are set to take place during the first week of September.

Miriam Dalli joined in 2010 and was assistant editor fr...
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