[WATCH] Operators need a year to relocate fish farms • Slime blamed on ‘greasier’ fish for feed

Fish for feed purchased from Hungary contained more oil than usual catching operators by surprise, the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers says

Tuna farm operators to relocate before next year's season - FMAP

Operators of tuna fish farms will be ready to kick off operations further outside Malta’s coasts by June 2017 because “a year is required” for the relocation to take place.

On Monday, the operators need to present the authorities with a plan of how they plan to address the cause of sludge that has been polluting the sea, but insist that action cannot happen in 30 days.

In a press conference convened by the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers, secretary John Refalo also claimed that the cause of the unprecedented slime witnessed this summer was probably caused by feed for fish purchased from Hungary which contained “more oil” than usual.

Insisting that the issues needing to be addressed were bigger than “administrative ones” – such as having more cages than declared or breeding tuna as opposed to sea bream or sea bass – Refalo reiterated that the industry had grown but regulations were never updated to meet the demand.

An emergency enforcement order was issued by the Planning Authority on Thursday, giving operators two working days to devise a strategy plan. “But how can you relocate a farm within a space of three weeks? There is a lot of preparatory work to be done.”

Refalo kicked off his address by arguing that the industry was contributing to at least 1.36% of the country’s gross domestic product, with figures set to rise.

“The industry is a success story in Malta. Whilst experiments with tuna farming failed in Sicily, Greece and Cyprus, Malta’s industry employs 1,000 fulltime jobs, directly and indirectly … upping the pressure on the industry will have a devastating effect; but it is currently not regulated as it should be,” Refalo said.

“Fish-farming is here to stay but we also recognize that we have obligations. Does the country want us to take our operations to other EU states? This is not a threat but a reality which will push us elsewhere if we cannot work here. Other countries have incentives for this type of business.”

Refalo said that all operators recognized that there were no other options but for tuna farms to relocate further out. An aquaculture strategy launched in 2014 proposed for all operators to relocate to the southeast of the island, 6km off Zonqor point. However, operators disagree with this as, in their words, it creates problems: “What if a virus spreads contaminating all of the fish? What if there is a collision incident between sea vessels? These are farms with a value of €25 million each.”

Operators are also calling for regulations that force every operator to insure their operations, but insurers have pointed out “problems” with having fish farms all set in one zone. They also want a bigger space for their farms – ICAT regulations need them to separate fish based on where they were caught – and an exclusion zone of 150 metres surrounding the fishing. The current proposed zone measures 3,000 metres by 1,500 metres, which according to Refalo can only house two farms.

“My concern is that the solution being looked at is one where the fish farms are out of sight and out of mind. What the operators want are solid regulations for minimum standards,” Refalo said.

According to Refalo, the farms have 10% more fish than last year, but still not surpassing the quota.

“We admit that the slime has caught us by surprise and when the problem emerged, it was too late for us to do anything. We have collected samples and sent them abroad for testing but the problem was probably caused by herring (fed to tuna) which contained more fat.”

Refalo reassured that the incident won’t “repeat itself”. Why? “Because the season is almost over. This has unfortunately left a sour taste and our reaction wasn’t quick enough. But we cannot demonise the industry … every industry has its faults but we never moved to shut them down.”

The operators now want the government to guarantee that the industry won’t be shut down. Acknowledging that this was never the message sent out by the government, Refalo said he was confident that a way forward will be agreed upon.

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