Crisis’s tumbling prices spell uncertain future for Maltese fishers

Get your claws in some lobster (psst... it’s half-price)

“We have been seeing increased discrimination and racist behaviour towards Asians, and this is a serious issue to us who are living in Malta to study or to work. We don’t feel secure at all”
“We have been seeing increased discrimination and racist behaviour towards Asians, and this is a serious issue to us who are living in Malta to study or to work. We don’t feel secure at all”

Export routes for Malta’s fishing industry are drying up in the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening to drive out fishers from business.

The price of fish across the island plummeted by nearly 50% after airports and trade routes across the globe were shut down by the pandemic, and in Malta restaurants and hotels ceased procurement of fish products.

Industry insiders said the problem for fishers started at the early stage of the pandemic in Malta, when government started closing down restaurants and places of entertainment to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Most large scale and full-time fishermen have agreements in place with restaurants and hotels, enabling them to directly sell their catch after coming ashore.

Fish normally served at restaurants like pandora fish (pagella), sea bream (pagru), bronze bream (bazuka) and scorpion fish (cippulazza) have all had their prices slashed.

A crate of common sea bream used to be sold at €20 a kilo; it is now being sold at €12 a kilo. Lobster has also seen a reduction in prices, going down from €30 a kilo to €14 a kilo.

Large-scale fishers normally use various fishing methods at this time of year, such as nets and hook line fishing. One of the seasonal fish normally exported during this time of the year is the scabbard fish (cinturin), with large amounts being sold to Italy. Swordfish is also seasonal at this time of the year, with over 25% of fish caught being exported.

But with lack of export, the majority of fishermen have resorted to bottom fishing, with fish normally consumed in domestic households being caught using this method. Fish caught using this method are considered to be of lower quality.

The issue, according to a fisherman who spoke to MaltaToday, is in the oversupply. “When the weather permits, everyone is out fishing for the same kind of fish, using the same methods, and that is driving prices down,” he said.

The fishermen also remarked that since the elderly have been cautioned to stay at home, he already has seen a drop in sales, as fish street vendors and those at flea markets have not been able to sell the fish.

Paul Piscopo, from the Fishing Cooperative, said that Malta’s fish trade is largely based on exportation. With the situation as it is, it has now become very hard to sustain.

The sentiment was also shared by fishermen Godwin Mifsud and Arthur Micallef, who said that the oversaturation of the market was not sustainable for a long period of time.

The current situation also spells bad news for licensed tuna fishers, as no company applied for a tender issued by fishing cooperatives for the exportation of tuna.

The tender sets a guaranteed price for the season, which allows fishermen peace of mind for pricing, making their effort and investments into catching tuna worthwhile.

The only other option for tuna fishers is that of selling their catch at the national fish market, without having a price guarantee on their catch.

Tuna fishing licensee Arthur Micallef said that such a system would not work. Micallef said that even 10 tuna fish at 100 kilos each day would be too much for the island. “For large scale fishers, who spend four to five nights fishing at sea, this is not sustainable, as costs to run the vessel and to pay the crew, outweigh the price at which the tuna would be sold,” he said.

Piscopo agreed, saying that around 95% of tuna caught in Malta is exported overseas. He said that fishing cooperatives are currently in talks with the government over a common solution that would benefit all.