Malta trappers told to ‘catch and release’ birds in new ruse to skirt EU ban

Gozo minister opens trapping season by derogating from EU ban with ‘research season’ by telling trappers to catch and release birds

Malta’s minister of Gozo, who is single-handedly responsible for the opening of birds hunting and trapping seasons, has announced an autumn trapping season for six species of bird starting Tuesday 20 October, and lasting to 20 December.

The birds (greenfinch, goldfinch, linnet, serin, chaffinch, siskin) must be released on capture, minister Clint Camilleri, a trapper himself, said in a statement. If the birds are not ringed, their capture need not be logged but must be still released at law.

Critics say the catch and release ruse is a smokescreen for a trapping season in which trappers simply intend to catch and keep birds.

The “research season”, as Camilleri has called it, has been criticised as a gift to the trapping lobby by conservationists BirdLife Malta and ornithologists who said the Maltese government is employing a “flawed research derogation”.

Finch trapping goes against EU directives but Malta has been adamant in trying to apply a derogation of sorts. The latest proposal disguises the derogation as a research exercise.

The derogation would allow for finch trapping in order to determine Malta’s reference population of seven different species, and in turn help determine whether Malta can introduce a separate derogatory regime, using a legal loophole. This would be done through the catching of wild finches in the hopes of encountering birds with identification rings, also known as bird ringing.

The move has not impressed bird conservation groups and ornithologists. “It is clear that the point of this derogation is to allow an otherwise illegal and unsustainable activity – the trapping and caging of wild finches – to appease a group of hobbyists,” ornithologist Marie Claire Gatt has said.

The loophole arises from EU legislation. The trapping of live migratory birds is banned across the EU, but member states may put forward a derogation so long that it is used “judiciously, with small numbers and under strict supervision.”

While the research period is set to be not more than 64 days, a separate derogatory regime could be introduced under the small numbers criterion if the number of finch species captured in Malta is less than 1% of the bird populations’ annual mortality.

Gatt says the argument for the derogation is scientifically flawed, with the probability of finding ringed songbirds typically less than 0.1%. 

Last month, BirdLife Malta had slammed the government’s decision earlier to allow finch trapping for scientific research purposes, with CEO Mark Sultana stating that the decision is a “smokescreen for tens of thousands of songbirds to be trapped by creatively classifying it as a scientific study.”

BirdLife Malta statement

Reacting to the decision on Monday, BirdLife Malta said that it has written to the EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, pointing out the “desperate and defiant move” by prime minister Robert Abela, to reopen the trapping season even though the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decreed against the opening of the trapping seasons in 2014 to 2017.

“This is a desperate attempt to bow to a small vociferous lobby that is being allowed to trap seven species of finches under the premise of a research project. Everyone knows that the absolute majority of trappers will keep the birds caught since they know that there is no monitoring and enforcement,” BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana said.

The NGO said that that the government appeared to be committed to taking Malta backwards when it came to wildlife protection.

“We have entered a dark age for the environment in Malta. Last week 12 Short-toed Eagles were gunned down in Malta, two flamingos were literally snatched from a nature reserve, and to add insult to injury the Prime Minister of Malta handed over the two largest tree-covered zones in Malta to the hunters and trappers,” the NGO said.

BirdLife Malta said it vowed to fight the latest decisions in court and promised to exhaust all legal avenues to counter this decision.