We must protect jobs: including fishermen

The Maltese government should immediately call for ministerial-level talks with Tunisia, to explain the situation Maltese fishermen find themselves in and to call on Tunisian authorities to investigate the reports and rein in on the interlopers

Claims by Maltese lampuki fishermen that their catches plundered by Tunisian counterparts, in what is a veritable war on the high seas, constitute a serious national security concern.

Apart from effectively stealing local fishers’ catch, local fishers also report that Tunisians were using strong-arm tactics to stop the Maltese from accessing their equipment.

Some have even been threatened with machetes and Molotov cocktails. They have also documented the presence of a 65-foot Tunisian vessel – nicknamed Bin Laden, on account of an image of the notorious Saudi terrorist, and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, on its hull –  which threatens to ram Maltese boats as they approach to claim their catch.

War on the high seas: Tunisian plundering Maltese and Gozitan lampuki catches

Arthur Micallef, a lampuki fisher, also believes the Tunisians fishers were using larger nets to circle the fish, which increases their yield.

“To put you into perspective, with our nets we fill a crate, with their nets they fill 10. They not only steal fish which should be ours, but proceed to destroy our gear which we spend months working on,” Micallef said.

This situation has been ongoing for around 10 years; but it has now become a daily occurrence, especially for Gozitan fishers, who fish at a more northerly angle.

Yet it is not an easy situation to resolve. Traditionally, the lampuki season kicks off on 10 August, and fishers lay out their kannizzati – floats under which fish shelter – along long lines in areas defined by the authorities. The first floats are normally laid out some eight miles from the Maltese coastline, heading out for a further 100 miles at regular intervals.

The angle at which the floats are laid out is determined by Maltese law; but the lines extend far out into international waters, where countries have limited jurisdiction.

Parliamentary Secretary Clint Camilleri has in fact admitted that no long-term solution is currently in sight.

“This is a problem that we know about, and a couple of days ago, we discussed the matter with the AFM, to determine different possibilities on how we can protect the fishers,” Camilleri said.

“The reality is that up to 25 miles out, within the Maltese fishing zone, the AFM can intervene, and we have a memorandum of understanding as a secretariat with the army on the protection of Maltese fishers, but there’s only so much we can do in international waters,” he added.

Camilleri said the government has considered taking the issue to the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), the body in charge of fishing in the Mediterranean Sea.

“This is something that has to be dealt with in that forum, as the AFM cannot intervene in international waters in the name of Maltese fishers, and only there can the issue be resolved with the Tunisian authorities,” he said.

This may well be true, but it does not explain why nothing seems to have been done at all, about a 10-year-old situation that is placing Maltese fishers’ livelihood (not to mention safety) in jeopardy on the high seas.

From an international law perspective, there is nothing – except perhaps lack of resources – stopping the authorities from detailing AFM patrol boats to accompany Maltese fishing boats as they trawl their lines… even in international waters.

Such issues only arise in case of an actual intervention by the local Armed Forces: which would have the potential to escalate into real violence on the high seas, and also destabilise relations between Malta and Tunisia.

But – just like arguments in favour of more policemen on the beat - the presence of patrol boats, on its own, could do much to act as a deterrent in such cases. It is easy for these lampuki ‘pirates’ to bully local fishermen who have no real means of defending themselves. They may feel less brazen, faced with a military vessel that can actually return fire.

And while a military escort may seem to be an exaggerated response… it would, at minimum, also send out a clear message that government is indeed taking the matter with the seriousness it deserves. This is a message that needs to be heard: not just by the fishermen themselves, but by any Maltese citizen who wants reassurance that Malta is a country that can protects its own people and their interests.

There are, however, other less immediately bellicose measures that can be taken. Camilleri’s point that the issue can be resolved through the dialogue with the Tunisian authorities, raises the question of how much discussion is actually taking place between our two countries.

If it hasn’t already, the Maltese government should immediately call for ministerial-level talks with Tunisia, to explain the situation Maltese fishermen find themselves in and to call on Tunisian authorities to investigate the reports and rein in on the interlopers.

But the matter also needs to be urgently brought up within the European Commission, which also must act to protect the interests of one of its members.

November’s plenary of the GFCM is clearly the right venue for the discussion to take place. Because ultimately, lawlessness on the high seas in the Mediterranean is a matter that should concern the rest of Europe, too.