It’s that slime of year again, folks…

Sea-slime, we are now told, is no longer “a result of the feed used by the fish farms”; nor is it even a ‘phytoplankton bloom’. Suddenly, it has become a ‘bloom of blue-green algae’ instead

Remember all that ‘sea-slime’ (or ‘sludge’, more like it) that suddenly started clogging up our bays and beaches around 12-15 years ago… i.e., roughly when the first tuna-penning ranches started operating off the Maltese coast?

Of course you do. After all, it’s not like this problem has ever really been ‘solved’, has it? Just last week there were renewed complaints about sea-slime in Marsaskala… a short distance from the largest concentration of operational tuna farms in Malta; and just a short time after the Environment and Resources Authority announced that it would conducting inspections of tuna farms at least three times a week.

But no matter: all these years later, it seems we are still (officially) none the wiser regarding what that sticky, smelly, gooey stuff even is… still less, what to do about it.

Never mind that everyone (and his pet dogfish) knows precisely what causes this phenomenon, and exactly where it’s all coming from. We’ve been given at least three totally contrasting explanations, in as many years.

Let’s start with the first, which is also by far the most plausible. In August 2016, “investigations by the Environment Authority and the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries [..] led to the conclusion that the aquaculture industry is to blame for the slime which is appearing in a number of bays where there are also several fish farm cages.”

According to Dr Joseph Borg, an independent consultant tasked with carrying out the environmental inspection on fish farms, “this oily slime forming on the sea surface is a result of the feed used by the fish farms, including frozen fish like sardines and mackerel.”

And in a September 2016 interview, Environment Minister Jose Herrera told me that: “As soon as this issue was brought to my notice – I inherited it in July – I took immediate action. I wanted to take stock of the situation. I didn’t have the data, so I appointed a ministerial committee involving the three regulators: the Planning Authority, the ERA and the Director General of Fisheries. The first thing I wanted to know was whether the slime was coming from the tuna pens. It took a couple of weeks, but we concluded that it was…”

The evidence, on that occasion, also took the form of aerial photographs showing a clear, unmistakable slime-trail leading directly to the offshore tuna pens. And two years later, a representative of the Malta Federation of Aquaculture Producers (MFPA) even confirmed all of the above: adding the extraordinary detail that the slime was being “collected, refined and exported” for “many uses… including medical”.

“It is a natural product – the slime is made up of fish oil residue from tuna feed like mackerel or sardines. The product starts to deteriorate if it is not collected immediately,” the federation’s spokesman (and lawyer) John Refalo told the press.

So far, so good. If this were a trial by jury, the verdict would no doubt be unanimous. The evidence is nothing if not conclusive; and there is even a confession of guilt, right there…

But this issue a question of science, not law. And the scientific method presumes that any conclusion would have to be open to peer-review.
Where are all the reports that were drawn up in the course of the ministry’s inter-departmental investigations? Can we see the actual results of the tests carried out by the Environment Authority and the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries, for instance?

Evidently not, because other scientists (and even the same Environment Authority) are now coming up with entirely different, unrelated explanations.

Last February, marine biologist Alan Deidun argued that ‘sea slime was probably not a product of fish farms”, but rather a “phytoplankton bloom”.

“When the phytoplankton species responsible for the foam production are in bloom, they produce a by-product, surfactant, which is only produced by a small group of phytoplankton species and which is generally innocuous, although unsightly to some,” he said… substantiating his claims by quoting studies conducted in Spain and the North Adriatic (but not, oddly enough, any of the local studies I mentioned above.)

And lo and behold! Three years after fully concurring that sea-slime was a product of its own operations… the MFPA suddenly found itself fulling concurring with Prof. Deidun instead.

“The slime was not coming from fish farms,” CEO Charlon Gouder abruptly declared, without elaborating any further (except to say that it ‘also exists abroad’. Erm… yes, and so do tuna farms…)

And now, this very week, the same ERA that conducted those tests in 2016, has come up with yet another, totally conflicting explanation for the latest manifestation of the same phenomenon.

Sea-slime, we are now told, is no longer “a result of the feed used by the fish farms”; nor is it even a ‘phytoplankton bloom’. Suddenly, it has become a ‘bloom of blue-green algae’ instead.

Erm… leaving aside that we’ve all seen and smelt this stuff with our own eyes and nostrils - some of us have even tried getting it out of our hair – and therefore need no scientific studies to conclude that it is neither ‘blue’ nor ‘green’, but a sickly, pukey greyish-white… one other question both the ERA and Prof. Deidun might wish to answer is…

… why would either ‘phytoplankton’ or ‘blue-green algae’ only decide to ‘bloom’ in Maltese waters, immediately after the first offshore tuna penning operations were set up, around 2005-6? And even then, why are the most adversely affected coastal areas also the ones in close proximity to one or more tuna pens?

I shall have to admit I know nothing about either phytoplankton or algae… so I can’t realistically exclude the possibility that these microorganisms – for whatever reason - might happen to just like hanging around tuna farms.

But as I said earlier: this is a scientific issue, and scientific explanations are therefore needed. If the phenomenon really is unrelated to tuna-penning… what is the scientific explanation for aerial photographs revealing such an indisputable link between sea-slime concentrations, and tuna farms? What, in brief, is the blooming connection between these two (otherwise entirely unrelated) things?  

And that’s just one of the many questions the ERA has to answer. (Note: I’ll let Deidun off the hook, as he was only expressing a private opinion, in response to a media comment request. The ERA, on the other hand, is supposedly the environment regulator, and therefore directly responsible for all this sticky, gooey mess to begin with).

It was only three years ago that the MFPA admitted to ‘collecting, refining, and exporting’ sea-slime ‘for medical uses’… on the basis that it was ‘a natural fish-oil product’ that may have particular health benefits or properties.

Are we to understand, then, that for the past three years, the aquaculture federation has actually been exporting ‘phytoplankton’ or ‘blue-green algae’ – the latter being particular harmful, from a medical point of view – on clearly false pretences?

If so, the ERA is not the only regulator that might have some explaining to do. Has the Medicines Authority, for instance, even looked into any of those claims made by Dr John Refalo on behalf of the MFPA in 2016?  

Given how little we actually knew, at the time, about this product they were flogging on the international medicines market… I would have thought the health authorities would immediately launch an investigation into the matter anyway (as they do in other clearly bogus health cons… like the clampdown on those daily ‘Blue Pain Relief’ ads on TV, for instance).

But now that so much doubt has been cast on the precise nature of this stuff we are exporting as ‘medicine’ – with the result that we still can’t even accurately identify it, 15 years after it first made an appearance – I would think the matter should be investigated with urgency.

Not, mind you, that there is any real cause for a health-scare. The first explanation was – let’s face it – almost certainly the most accurate. Sea-slime really is a ‘natural fish oil product’; it is the entirely natural consequence of unnaturally cooping up large numbers of large fish like Bluefin Tuna, and unnaturally fattening them to increase their (equally unnatural) price on the international market.

The ERA knows this, because it worked on the earlier investigations that had proved the connection beyond all reasonable doubt. So I guess the real question it now has to answer is: was it bullshitting us in 2016, when it told us that sea-slime was a direct product of Malta’s multi-million euro tuna-penning industry? Or is it bullshitting us today, when it says the direct opposite?

Scientifically speaking: the answers can’t exactly be the same, you know…

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