Life on the high seas | Clint Camilleri

The fact remains that within the Maltese fishing zone, or up to twenty-five miles from shore, the AFM can and does intervene effectively but beyond that, however, our powers are limited by international law

Tunisian fishers are consistently reported to plunder fish off the Gozitan kannizzati
Tunisian fishers are consistently reported to plunder fish off the Gozitan kannizzati

Talk of life on the high seas often conjures up images of brute lawlessness and cutthroat ruggedness. Lying, as they do, beyond the sobering reach of civilisation, international waters are, in the collective imagination, an environment where each person or vessel is to themselves, and where might definitely is right.

The issue of Tunisian and Gozitan fishers clashing over the dolphin fish (lampuki) fisheries in the north-west of the islands has recently been the subject of several media reports. It is not, however, a new phenomenon. Even as far back as 2002, for example, there had been calls by interested fishers for the Maltese and Tunisian governments to take immediate steps to stem the problem.

What is now obvious is that it was not to be, and therefore several years later the problem persists. Tunisian fishers are consistently reported to plunder fish off the Gozitan’s fishing aggregating devices (FADS), popularly known as kannizzati in Maltese. While fishing off the floats is not strictly illegal, there have also been reports of fishers actually stealing or even destroying the Gozitan floats outright.

Gozitan crews have described in particularly vivid terms the belligerent behaviour of some Tunisian boats and their crews. Vessels have been reported to actively fend off Gozitan fishing craft, preventing them from accessing their own kannizzati just as other Tunisian boats fished off those very same floats.

In extreme cases, Tunisian boats are said to have attempted to ram Gozitan vessels and to have harassed them very savagely, with disturbing reports of very near misses during ramming manoeuvres, and of fearsome Tunisian crews brandishing machetes and petrol bombs.

Government is of course fully aware of the challenges and threats that our fishers have to face on a daily basis in the course of their work. We never have, and never will, shirk our responsibility for protecting our fisheries and the livelihoods of our fishers. I have personally had discussions with the armed forces, and I have been assured that all necessary measures are being taken, within the parameters of international law, to protect our fishers.

The fact remains that within the Maltese fishing zone, or up to twenty-five miles from shore, the AFM can and does intervene effectively. Beyond that, however, our powers are limited by international law. This is not to say that we intend to sit on the fence, and indeed finding a long-term solution to this matter sits up there among our topmost priorities. Nevertheless it is clear that, objectively, this can only be achieved within the contexts of international agreements and forums.

Government is considering taking the issue to the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), the regional fisheries management organization. The GFCM, of which Malta and Tunisia are contracting parties, is the body in charge of fishing in the Mediterranean Sea. It should, in my view, be the main forum wherein to make our case with the Tunisian authorities, who alone have the clout to rein in any wrongdoers.

It does, in fact, appear that concerns had been raised with Tunisia in 2002, and that these had resulted in the Tunisian authorities temporarily putting a stop to the poaching. There exists, therefore, every reason to believe that diplomacy and negotiations with the Tunisian authorities in the context of the GFCM could represent a way forward and out of the present impasse, but we must ensure that this time round the results will be permanent.

The European Union too is a contracting party in the GFCM, and Malta has raised the matter with the European Commission. The EC has taken the view that a spatial dispute does indeed exist between Maltese and Tunisian fishers on lampuki fishing, and is therefore expected to raise the issue in the next meeting of the GFCM in Greece.

I believe that now is the time for every effort to be made on our part to present a united front, together with our EU friends, and to engage constructively with the Tunisian authorities in the quest for a permanent resolution of the issue. It seems to me that a means to this end could be a GFCM-brokered and regulated FAD management plan acceded to by Malta and Tunisia. This would facilitate the identification of the floats and regulate the fishing practices of the two countries.

I wish to assure all fishers that I am well aware of the hardships and threats that they have to face when they are out at sea. It is, therefore, with the utmost responsibility that I reiterate my own and government’s commitment to their well-being, and I shall not rest in my endeavours to find the best possible avenues for helping and supporting them in their work. I am convinced that only possible solution to the current problem is clearly to negotiate an agreement with the Tunisian authorities within the GFCM, with the help of the European Commission. This is what I will be working towards in the coming weeks.

I strongly believe that the focus should be on seeking common ground with the Tunisian authorities with a view to finding a workable arrangement that both countries can agree to in a spirit of neighbourly cooperation. The solution definitely does not lie in confrontation, as we ultimately rely on the Tunisian authorities, and on them alone, to regulate the agreement from their end, and to weed out any wrongdoers. It is the only way to make the international waters in the north-west a safer place, and to ensure that our fishers go there to work, not fight.

Clint Camilleri is the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture and Fisheries

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