Muscled out of the sea by Malta’s tuna giants

The tuna ranchers’ pledge to contain the sea slime their ranches leech out into Maltese waters comes late in the day for a multi-million industry that elbowed out traditional fishers with intensive fishing methods to feed the insatiate Japanese market

It has now been over 20 years since the Maltese tuna industry became one of the island’s major exporters of fish products, namely to Japan: in 2016, it exported a total of €121 million in fish products, roughly 89% of all Maltese exports to the land of the rising sun
It has now been over 20 years since the Maltese tuna industry became one of the island’s major exporters of fish products, namely to Japan: in 2016, it exported a total of €121 million in fish products, roughly 89% of all Maltese exports to the land of the rising sun

Malta’s tuna giants revelled in some attention over the past weeks. Maltese bays had been plagued by slicks of fish feed slime for years. But as public outrage finally made it to the Prime Minister’s sensitive ear, the magnates accompanying him on a trade delegation to Tokyo in July had to take note.

Standing with Joseph Muscat, tuna ranchers like Charles Azzopardi watched as their quarry – netted with intensive technology and fattened inside ranches – commanded some of the highest prices on the Japanese fish market, at nothing less than €35 a kilo.

Already Charles Azzopardi had claimed in 2016 that his workers were doing their utmost to contain the sea slime, saying he had sent samples for DNA testing to Italy, doubting that it emanated from his tuna cages. But this time from Japan, Azzopardi was quick to take action, with the Federation of Malta Acquaculture Producers issuing a statement to the public to announce a new regime of self-regulation, taking measures to monitor their farms and better ring-fence their ranches to prevent feed slime from polluting internal waters.

But while the tuna industry is accused of spoiling Maltese waters with the smelly white mulch that sticks to swimmers’ bodies, it is seldom berated for the way it radically changed Malta’s fishing industry. In the week where small fishers set sail for the annual lampuka (dolphin fish) season, these men and women are redolent of a long tradition of hook-and-line fishers, just like the age-old tunnara fishers who in the 2000s were muscled out with the industrialisation of tuna ranching.

By 2010, the purse seine industry was buying out the ITQs of smaller fishers and accumulating the quota and fishing permits of the artisanal fishermen.
By 2010, the purse seine industry was buying out the ITQs of smaller fishers and accumulating the quota and fishing permits of the artisanal fishermen.

It has now been over 20 years since the Maltese tuna industry became one of the island’s major exporters of fish products, namely to Japan: in 2016, it exported a total of €121 million in fish products, roughly 89% of all Maltese exports to the land of the rising sun. In the record year of 2013, exports totalled over €215 million. Altogether the industry operates a fattening capacity of over 12,300 tonnes.

It is this very fact, the international demand for tuna belly, or toro in Japan, prized for sashimi and sushi, and the direct blessing of the Maltese government, that changed what used to be a hook-and-line artisanal industry.

Spanish giants like Ricardo Fuentes, which owns the Maltese company Mare Blu, perfected the business through the use of purse seiners to capture hundreds of tonnes of tuna and secure them inside ranches, from just one trip. Traditional fishers would catch one fish at a time, led to their prey by seagulls. But the ranchers used technology and air spotters to detect areas where the fish are.

Malta issued its first purse-seine permits in 2005, when fisheries minister Ninu Zammit called on the Maltese fishing industry to “equip themselves like their [foreign] competitors”.

The rapid growth and intensity of the catching methods brought enormous stress on tuna resources from overfishing. Calls for quotas, imposed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), eventually led to the introduction of a total allowable catch (TAC).

In Malta, the TAC system brought a drastic overhaul of fishermen’s lives, as the government and the fishermen’s co-ops agreed on radical changes: reducing the Bluefin tuna fleet capacity by 25%, allowing fishermen to transfer their quotas (individual transferable quotas, or ITQs) to larger players, and allocating just up to 2% of the national TAC for recreational tuna fishermen.

This is what tuna ranchers without any historical catch records – like Azzopardi Fisheries’ AJD Tuna and Elbros MFF Ltd – did: since they could not be assigned a specific quota, they bought their ITQs from artisanal fishermen, who had their own historical catch records.

Charles Azzopardi had claimed in 2016 that he doubted that the sea slime  emanated from his tuna cages
Charles Azzopardi had claimed in 2016 that he doubted that the sea slime emanated from his tuna cages

A study by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, says that by 2009 the ITQ scheme recognized just 20% of the full-time fleet (82 vessels) and 0.6% of the part-time fleet (four vessels) as tuna fishing rights-holders. The rest of the vessel owners were excluded from the quota, because they did not have official records of tuna catches declared at the central fish market.

The reason was that most of these artisanal fishers sold their tuna directly to consumers, a fact of life made complex by under-declared catches due to tax evasion.

So by 2010, the purse seine industry was buying out the ITQs of smaller fishers and accumulating the quota and fishing permits of the artisanal fishermen.

On one hand, the quotas reduced overfishing and allowed tuna stocks to recover, so much so that Malta’s TAC was increased in 2014. But by then, the larger players had accumulated fishing rights and were the major beneficiaries from the increased TAC.

Smaller fishermen were unable to afford the prices of new fishing rights and acquire their higher quota.

Additionally, new rules prohibited vessels with quotas less than 200kg to actively fish for Bluefin tuna. Instead, they could only transfer their quota to another vessel. “A fisherman explained that between 2010 and 2014, the prices attached to the leased-ITQs i.e. €5–€6 were less than the reported export price of between €9 and €10, and for this reason many small-ITQ holders would have preferred to catch rather than lease their ITQs,” the Durrell researchers had found.

So the system ultimately was geared to elbow out smaller fishers, who in the main were leasing out their ITQs to the tuna ranchers.

Malta’s tuna ranching industry is owned by only five companies, two of which are foreign investors – the Ricardo Fuentes group of Spain, and Toei Reefer Line of Japan. This has given them access to lucrative foreign tuna markets, which means that even active long-liner fishers have to export their tuna via tuna ranchers, who enjoy a monopoly over the price of both the ITQ lease and the export market.

By reducing the difference between the price to lease out their ITQs and the price to export the ITQ-caught tuna, the ranchers managed to attract the majority of independent Maltese ITQ holders to lease their ITQ directly to them. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of active long-liners fishing their ITQs decreased by 71%. As the artisanal fleet shrunk, the locals were instead taken on as extra deckhands for the tuna season between April and July.

Leasing ITQs has been lucrative for some fishers, allowing them to gain income by deploying their vessels at the service of the larger companies, which carry up to 70 pieces of nets and work around the clock, in part aided by imported cheap labour.

But the Durrell scientists also said that small fishers suspected there was an ‘implicit’ game to dishearten them so that they lease their ITQs to the tuna ranchers. Long-liner fishers claimed the government created ‘intimidating’ control procedures, namely by regular at-sea-inspections to make them “anxious and under pressure. After narrating a bitter experience that he encountered with enforcement procedures at sea, an active long-liner said ‘...these days I am always afraid – and my fear only ends when I get back home – not when I tie up the boat but when I am in my house”.

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