Fishing in troubled waters | Martin Caruana

Are traditional Maltese fishermen being muscled out of existence by an aggressive new marine order? For MARTIN CARUANA, professional fisherman from Marsaxlokk, and former head of the Fisheries Co-operative, the future looks bleak

The future looks bleak for Malta's fishermen, says professional fisherman from Marsaxlokk and former head of the Fisheries Co-Operative Martin Caruana • Photo: Chris Mangion
The future looks bleak for Malta's fishermen, says professional fisherman from Marsaxlokk and former head of the Fisheries Co-Operative Martin Caruana • Photo: Chris Mangion

Turning up half an hour early for an interview has its advantages sometimes. I had arranged to meet Martin Caruana, a local fisherman and former head of the Fisheries Co-operative, in central Marsaxlokk on New Year’s Eve, 3pm. Fears of traffic gridlock proved unfounded, parking proved ample, and when I arrived, I found I had some 40 minutes to spare.

The market was still open. Besides, I hadn’t been here in years, and the sun was only just beginning to peep out from behind dark clouds that had earlier lashed the place with rain. I can think of worse ways to end 2015, than to take a stroll along the Marsaxlokk waterfront.

An interesting place it is, too. There is an unmistakable feeling that its character is rapidly changing, almost directly before our eyes. Colourful luzzus still roll and bob on its oily waters, true – but Marsaxlokk harbour now looks more like a tourist resort than a once-thriving fishing village. 

One tell-tale clue is the near-total disappearance of the typical trammel nets (pariti, to use one of around a thousand new Maltese words I was about to learn) that were so often seen being mended on the promenade.

Likewise, one or two luzzus had been hauled up the slipways onto the hard for repairs. In bygone days, it might have been tens of luzzus, and the air would reek of paint and tarred wood. Today, the odd boat being painted here and there seems strangely out of place… almost usurping areas now designated for al fresco dining.

Later, Martin Caruana will give me a small tour of what’s left of Malta’s Fisherman’s Row: now limited to one or two (mostly broken) slipways, and a newly inaugurated concrete platform which Caruana informs me cost €1 million in EU funding. 

I can’t help feeling like I’m looking at the last of a dying trade. What went wrong? We are now seated at a small kitchen table in Caruana’s home, also on the seafront. 

“In the old days, Marsaxlokk was full of fishermen, full of boats,” he begins. “But it was never a big operation in terms of industry. Most vessels were small fishing boats, mostly luzzus, fishing in what we now call the ‘conservation zone’… up to 25 nautical miles off the coast. They used to catch a lot of fish, too…”

‘A lot of fish’ is, of course, relative. The amounts landed by traditional Maltese fishermen paled into insignificance compared to the large industrial fleets of other nations fishing in the same sea. Before the 1990s, however, Malta had no large trawlers – and trawling itself was not permitted in Malta’s territorial waters.

“The sort of fishing that took place was all sustainable: they used long lines (konzijiet), and if they fished with trammel nets (parit), each boat would only throw down between five and seven nets at a time…

Caruana recalls that many fishermen would go out at night, and fish for mackerel (kavalli) or bogue (vopi) using lanterns (lampari) within sight of land. That finally explains a phenomenon I remember as a child: the sea at night was often full of twinkling little lights, which from a distance looked like fallen stars floating on the water. 

In years gone by there would have been entire constellations of them at certain times of year. Today, you will only ever see a handful of individual lights.

“Everything had its own season,” Caruana goes on. “There was a season for lampari, a season for lampuki, a season for deep-water fishing using long lines, a season for traps, and so on. My father, for instance only ever used traps. In those days – before the advent of industrial fishing – you could catch almost anything with traps. Lobster, all sorts of bottom fish… even king prawns. I could mention types of fish, which used to be abundant, that are now considered a rare delicacy: red mullet (trill), Ray’s bream (tennut), grouper...” 

The ecological impact of these traditional methods of fishing, Caruana argues, was minimal. “Even trammel nets, which are often criticised as unsustainable and indiscriminate… the biggest problem with trammel nets is that they sometimes get stuck and are left on the seabed….”

In nine cases out of 10, he adds, the culprits will be amateur, leisure fishermen who “don’t know what they’re doing”.

“The first time their net gets stuck, they’ll just yank it a couple of times, and if it doesn’t come loose, most will just cut the line and leave it there. You won’t get many professional fishermen just abandoning a net like that…”

If used properly, Caruana argues that a trammel-net is far less detrimental than the more recent innovation that has replaced it: bottom trawling, which was illegal in Maltese waters until we joined the European Union in 2004.

“With trammel nets, you simply lower the net and then raise it later. You don’t drag it against the seabed. There is no damage to coral, or anything else. And you’re only fishing from one particular place, so the surrounding ecology is undisturbed...”

His father’s generation was the first to experience the negative impact of trawlers, when industrial fisheries began taking over around 30 years ago. 

“At first it was mostly foreign trawlers: mostly Italian. Then, two or three Maltese fishermen invested in trawlers, too… but these, at the beginning, still worked within the traditional seasons. They still had an impact – all bottom trawling does – but on its own, it wasn’t felt as much.”

Caruana recalls that the passage of these trawlers would leave an ecological desert in its wake. “My father would be fishing in one area, and when a trawler passed, there would be nothing left to catch for miles around. And unlike static nets, the sea would not replenish itself afterwards. They wouldn’t catch anything for weeks afterwards…. It’s as though, apart from dragging everything from the bottom, the fish get scared, and that’s the last you’d see of them.”

Though small, Malta’s traditional fishery fought back harder than its larger, more industrialised rivals expected. 

“In the 1970s, Mintoff had done something about the situation. He extended Malta’s territorial waters up to 25 nautical miles – it was controversial at the time, but you know how Mintoff was: if he set his mind on something, he just did it… and he also banned trawling from Maltese waters.”

Caruana pauses to run a quick search on his laptop. “Here it is, Chapter 226, Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone Act…”

By extending territorial waters, Mintoff effectively expanded an existing 1934 ban on trawling over a much larger territory: “It shall not be lawful for any steam or motor propelled vessel or trawler, as well as for sailing vessels, to shoot or tow any kind of nets within the territorial waters of these Islands…”

Enforcement was taken more seriously, too. “Once, an Italian schooner decided to defy the ban and trawl in Malta’s waters,” Caruana recalls. “The vessel was impounded by the Coast Guard, and as far as I know they never got it back…”

Predictably, Italian fishermen (and Sicilians in particular) did not take too kindly to the game-change. “I remember one time, I was in Sicily and got talking to some local fishermen. One of them burst into torrent of abuse against Mintoff…” he breaks into a laugh. “Not all these ‘fishermen’ were necessarily catching fish. It turned out that this one was smuggling cigarettes, and had to throw his cargo overboard when Maltese patrol boats showed up.”

Some of the jettisoned boxes would later be retrieved, and Malta was often flooded with cheap, duty-free cigarettes, all of the same brand. “They were even smoked in parliament. Someone I know has a photo in which a uniformed policeman can be seen smoking a contraband cigarette,” he concludes, chuckling. 

There was, however, a serious side to Malta’s unilateral territorial expansion. Though it may not have been the primary intention (which arguably had more to do with oil exploration rights), it certainly gave a boost to local artisanal fisheries. 

“The small Maltese fishing vessels – the luzzus, equipped with traps and long-lines – began to experience a recovery. In a way, the 1970s and 1980s were a golden age for the fishing industry. In Marsaxlokk, the number of boats increased, and you could see young people jingling change in their pockets. By then, swordfish had become a large part of the market.”

It wasn’t before? He shakes his head. “Maltese fishermen only began going out for swordfish in around the late 1960s. At first it was only caught occasionally. But the traditional swordfish method, using long-lines, got established around 1974 onwards…”

Here he breaks off to extol one of Malta’s great advantages as a fishing nation: its ingenuity and resourcefulness.

“If the Maltese fisherman has any quality that sets him apart, it’s that he learns fast. And he develops what he learns, too. He doesn’t just copy: he improves…”

Swordfish is a classic case in point: the Maltese copied the basic method from the Italians… “but we improved certain details, like the knots used for the hook. Maltese fishermen developed a way to attach the hook using a thread, which made it harder for the line to snap when a big fish bites…”

Similar successes were observed in other seasons and methods. By the late 1980s, the industry had been revitalised, and future prospects looked good.

“The reality is that what we call ‘a conservation zone’, back then, really was a conservation zone. Only sustainable fishing was allowed. And we reaped the fruits at the time.”

As with all golden ages, however, this one was doomed to come to an end. 

“When they began negotiating EU accession [in the 1990s], the government gave the impression that retaining the 25-mile zone was a priority. And in fact, we retained it. But, ‘by exception’, they gave permission for trawling to resume in Maltese waters. And not only that, but they passed a law forbidding boats larger than 12 metres from fishing within the zone. Quite a few of the local luzzus are over 12 metres. It’s not very big, for a fishing boat. This means they now have to go out more than 25 miles to fish…”

Bearing in mind that traditionally, most fishing was done within sight of land… this has radically jacked up the expenses (not least, diesel) involved.

“At the same time, however – also ‘by exception’ – an industrial trawler up to 24 metres can now trawl in the same zone. So artisanal fishermen who have hardly any impact have been kicked out; but large industrial vessels which wreak havoc on the seabed – smashing through everything just to catch a few shrimps or red mullet – those are allowed. A boat twice the size of another, that can no longer fish in Maltese waters, is allowed to practise a destructive fishing method that was previously banned.”

The government’s justification, then, was that trawling would only be permitted in ‘restricted areas’. 

“Now, everyone in the world wants to protect the whale. But we all know that the Japanese still hunt it, on the pretext that it is ‘for scientific purposes’. It’s a loophole. The same thing is happening locally. If you look at these ‘restricted areas’, you will see that they are actually the prime fishing areas in Maltese waters.”

This, he argues, is not only short-sighted and unwise; it also runs counter to Malta’s official targets as an EU member state.

Caruana rattles off the relevant paragraph from the acquis by heart: “The Common Fisheries Policy of the EU is based on the concept of conservation and sustainability by restricting fishing effort in the most sensitive part of Community waters and preserving traditional fishing activities on which the social and economic development of certain coastal communities is highly dependent.”

He pauses for a clarification. “By ‘fishing effort’, it means the capacity and activity of all fishing vessels. This was supposed to remain the same, according to the EU’s policies. But it has not remained the same: Malta’s fishing effort has grown… we have licensed more trawlers, and we have allowed them to fish in the conservation zone.”

Curtailing the environmental impact of fishing, he adds, is an indispensable to the conservation effort. “The fact that many artisanal fishermen could not make ends meets is proof enough that local fish stocks have been in a steady decline since the re-introduction of industrial fishing within the zone.” 

Enforcement, on the other hand, has apparently grown more lax.

“I have lost count of the number of times I have contacted the Fisheries Department to report IUU (illegal, undeclared, unregulated) activities. Some time ago I reported a large trawler, Tobago-flagged, which was circulating aimlessly in Maltese waters. It is larger than 24 metres. What is it doing?”

Eventually, the answer came back that they ‘had lost an anchor’. Caruana reckons this anchor must be worth a lot. “They’ve been wandering around looking for it for over a week, and they’re still there now…”  

He shrugs. “There will always be an excuse. Another time I reported an Italian trawler at night within sight of land – no lights, nothing – and I was told that it was all right, because they were fishing for ‘scientific purposes’. Fact is, reporting alleged infringements to the Fisheries Department is simply ineffective.”

Matters are further complicated by the existence of different licence categories, including ‘MFC3’ – the licence for leisure fishing.

“On paper, there are limits to ‘leisure fishing’. The Fisheries Department, which is responsible for the registration of fishing vessels, declares that ‘category MFC vessels are vessels that cannot commercialise their catch and that they are also restricted in the gears that can be used’. In reality, however, things are very different…”

Fishing under this category is often unregulated, undeclared and illegally commercialized. “I see this out at sea a lot. A boat would come along, equipped with long-lines and power-winches – often with as much gear as an industrial boat. They will be ‘leisure fishermen’. Yet they are better equipped, and fish over a larger territory than I do… though I have a professional fisherman’s licence.”

The impact of this phenomenon is “huge”, he goes on, and is directly affecting the livelihood of artisanal fishermen. “Yet when you report it, nothing happens. It’s like they’re not even interested.”

Caruana questions whether there is still the political will to ensure the survival of Malta’s tiny artisanal industry.

“What the future will bring I don’t know, but what I can say is this. If, in years gone by, there was a saucepan from which 50 people would eat roughly the same amount… now, more than half that saucepan has been gobbled up between two or three, while the rest keep getting less and less on their plate.”  

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