Powerless spectators to the hungry tuna ranchers: the demise of artisanal fishermen

An anthropological study of Maltese artisanal fishermen has revealed how the industrialisation of tuna farming in the 1990s has muscled out small fishers and radically changed Malta’s fishing industry

A long-standing tradition of small-scale fishers has now given way to the tuna giants, intensive technology and their tuna fattening ranches
A long-standing tradition of small-scale fishers has now given way to the tuna giants, intensive technology and their tuna fattening ranches

Artisanal fishermen in Malta have become ‘powerless spectators’ to the way the Bluefin tuna fishery industry has been taken over by the large purse seiners and foreign interests in tuna ranching.

A long-standing tradition of small-scale fishers that existed since the 1700s, which used hook-and-line methods baited with mackerel, has now given way to the tuna giants, intensive technology and their tuna fattening ranches, commanding prices that can only force small fishers out of business.

But this rapid transformation into industrialised fishing was also carried out with the direct blessing of the government in 2001, and since then, the tuna ranching industry has suffocated artisanal fishers.

In a field study carried out by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, social scientists met with Maltese fishermen whose livelihoods were irrevocably changed by the advent of industrialised tuna fishing.

A tuna fattening ranch: purse seiners capture enormous amounts of tuna to place in ranches, before selling the fattened fish off to Japan
A tuna fattening ranch: purse seiners capture enormous amounts of tuna to place in ranches, before selling the fattened fish off to Japan

The industrial turn

Initially tuna was fished using the tunnara artisanal trap system, and after the 1960s using hook-and-line methods such as long-line gear. But it was during the 1990s that the international demand for toro meat – tuna belly, prized in Japan for sashimi and sushi – led to an increase in Maltese exports to the international market.

Industrialised methods allowed fishing companies like Ricardo Fuentes to capture enormous numbers of tuna using purse seiners, to provide enough live bluefin tuna to stock ranches with hundreds of tonnes of tuna from just one trip. While industrial giants used technology to detect areas where the fish are, traditional fishers catch one fish at a time and are led to their prey by seagulls.

Overfishing and exploitation soon gave way to ‘tuna wars’, as competition for the species became intense.

Scientists Alicia Said, Joseph Tzanopoulos, and Douglas Macmillan – who interviewed fishing communities in Marsaxlokk and Mgarr (Gozo) between May 2014 and August 2015 – locate 2001 as the start of a government-mandated shift in policy, when then fisheries minister Ninu Zammit called on Maltese fishermen to “equip themselves like their [foreign] competitors” and issued the first purse-seine permits in 2005.

Today the industry has generated some €500 million in sales over the past six years alone, and operates a fattening capacity of 12,300 tonnes.

But it’s this rapid growth that 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 the total allowable catch (TAC).

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

Protesting in 2011: little has changed
Protesting in 2011: little has changed

Buying out small fishermen

When the purse seine permits were issued in 2005 to companies such as AJD Tuna of Azzopardi Fisheries, and MFF Ltd, this industry did not have a historical record of catch due to its late entry to the tuna fleet.

Since it could not be assigned a specific quota, these big tuna companies could only participate in the industry by buying the ITQs from artisanal fishermen, who had their own historical catch records.

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. According to one fisherman “before, we used to sell a lot of tuna through hands [fisherman-to- consumer] and did not take it to the fish market,” while another fisherman stated that the problem of non-declaration was also linked to tax evasion “and so when it came to the actual figures, their quota was relatively low”. 

By 2010, the purse seine industry was purchasing ITQs from the smaller fishers and accumulating the quota and fishing permits of very many artisanal fishermen. 

The control on quotas to reduce overfishing has had some success in allowing tuna stocks to recover, and in 2014 the TACs were increased by 20%. But while the large players accumulated fishing rights and benefited from the increased TAC, smaller fishermen were unable to afford the prices of new fishing rights and acquire their own quota.

New rules also prohibited vessels with quotas less than 200kg to actively fish for Bluefin tuna. Instead, they could only transfer their quota to another vessel which has a quota.

“This policy left small ITQ holders considerably worse off,” the Durrell scientists say. “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 rest of the system seems geared to elbow the ‘non-operational’ tuna fishermen out of the market (in total there are 63 artisanal vessels owned by 54 individuals or companies, but the concentration of rights is dominated by companies associated with the tuna ranching industries).

For example, to declare tuna as by-catch is conditional on catching 20 heads of swordfish, one fisherman told the Durrell scientists. “Now, for a fisherman to catch 20 heads of swordfish he has to be very lucky, so the policy is there to dishearten the fishermen from catching his small quota as by-catch and instead lease it to the fish farm.”

Immigrant labour is an important source of workers for the tuna fishing industry, as more small-scale Maltese fishers abandon the trade
Immigrant labour is an important source of workers for the tuna fishing industry, as more small-scale Maltese fishers abandon the trade

Tuna ranching: accumulation by dispossession 

Malta’s tuna ranching industry is owned by only five companies, two of which are foreign investors. Together with the large tuna fishing companies, who own larger iron vessels, they could pay them some €1,200 daily for the two months of the year to tow the tuna cages. And this meant that tuna ranchers were able to secure the lease of these fishermen’s ITQs as well, becoming the real owner of the Maltese Bluefin tuna industry.

“Along with being the main owner and lessee of the national TAC, the tuna ranching sector also controls access to the lucrative foreign BFT markets,” the Durrell scientists say.

“These connections are allowing the tuna ranchers to exploit prices to their advantage with, for example, active long-liners who must export their BFT via the tuna ranchers.

“For this reason, the ranching industry has a monopoly over the price of both the lease and the export market, and it is therefore in a powerful position to maximize profits and act strategically at the expense of the artisanal fishing fleet. 

“For example, by reducing the difference between the leased-ITQ price (€6–€8 in 2015) and the export price of ITQ caught tuna (at around €9–€10 in 2015), the tuna ranchers have been able to attract the majority of independent Maltese ITQ holders to lease their ITQ directly to them. Consequently the number of active long-liners fishing their ITQs decreased by 71% between 2014 and 2015.” 

Maltese long-liners also claim the government has created ‘intimidating’ control procedures in the form of regular at-sea-inspections and a heavy bureaucratic burden on their operations, making 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”. 

The Durrell scientists believe it is safe to assume that these procedures are an ‘implicit’ way of disheartening artisanal fishers, and encourage them to instead lease their ITQs to the tuna ranchers.

The effect has been clear: a major reduction in the artisanal fleet, while locals are taken on as extra deckhands for the BFT season between April and July. 

The spillover effect

As fishermen explained, fishing activity during what was before the Bluefin tuna season, has now transferred to other fisheries, mainly trammel netting and gill netting, targeting bottom feeders and small pelagic species respectively.

Indeed, between 2007 and 2012 the days at sea spent on trammel nets increased by 4,500% while gillnets have increased by 870%, a spill-over directly related to decreased profitability of the non-permit BFT holders who had to diversify into other fishing systems, and by fishermen who have chosen to lease out their ITQs rather than fish them.

But the Durrell scientists also note that for some fishers, leasing their ITQs has been lucrative, and allowed them to gain income and maximize their profits by deploying their vessels in the trammel net and gill net fisheries. Additionally, the large ITQ holders themselves use up to 70 nets per day compared to small ITQ holders with up to 15 nets. In the words of Marsaxlokk fisherman Martin Caruana, “the bigger boats [are] carrying 50–70 pieces of nets and working round the clock, thanks to imported cheap labour.” To boot, there are the effects of overfishing because of industrial trawling.

Marsaxlokk fisherman Martin Caruana, “the bigger boats [are] carrying 50–70 pieces of nets and working round the clock, thanks to imported cheap labour”- in contrast to small fishers who use 12 nets
Marsaxlokk fisherman Martin Caruana, “the bigger boats [are] carrying 50–70 pieces of nets and working round the clock, thanks to imported cheap labour”- in contrast to small fishers who use 12 nets

“As one fisherman highlighted ‘the past was more viable in terms of catches and now the expenses have increased, so the future isn’t welcoming’. These fishermen perceive their future as bleak and some have resorted to the recreational bluefin tuna fishing segment to make ends meet,” the Durrell scientists say.

In another blow to artisanal fishers, the conditions for recreational tuna catches prohibits them from commercializing their catches. Informally, the tuna can be sold for just €2 a kilo. “The fishermen, however are not benefitting much as commercial sales are not allowed and they are easily exploited by middlemen who can take advantage of the system. As a fisherman explained ‘...the fishermen end up with the cheapest price for this tuna, when and if, they find potential buyers. The middleman tells you that he has the same level of risk as you do and so he wants the cheapest price. We sell a tuna of 50kg for €100 and then they sell it for around €10 per kilogramme – making around €1,000.”

Additionally, these fishermen are exposed to the risk of prosecution for exceeding the one-tuna-per-trip catch.

Recreational fishers cannot commercialise their catch
Recreational fishers cannot commercialise their catch

Divide and rule

Politics plays an important part in this grave shift into industrialization and the concentration of the quotas into tuna ranchers and larger purse seiners. Many of these fishing giants are seasoned businessmen in their own right with commercial interests in construction, and as is typical for Malta, close to the political elites.

MaltaToday itself was hit hard when writing about the subject. In 2007, journalist Raphael Vassallo began writing about alleged shortcomings in import-export data, fattening rates that appeared biologically impossible, and an illegal case of re-flagging vessels. MaltaToday was later hit with a mass libel legal action by all five companies on the island — Ta’ Mattew Fish Farms, Fish & Fish Tuna Ranch, Malta Fish Farms, AJD Tuna, and Mare Blu Tuna Ranch. As it stands today, the case remains in suspension.

Small fishers complain that even members of the Fisheries Coop benefited from the tuna ranching industry.

“Tuna ranching, which was presented by the Cooperatives as a new niche for Maltese fishermen, benefits only around 5% of the full-time artisanal fishing fleet. These include co-operative members who accrued profits through the ranch ownership and 15% of the ITQ holders who have diversified into cage towage during the purse seine season.

“Although there are opportunities to work as labourers at the tuna ranching installations for those fishermen excluded from the BFT fishery directly, this has not been an attractive option for most as ‘low-paid jobs do not provide the same income and job satisfaction as much as the BFT fishing activity’.” 

The Durrell scientists say that most fishermen criticize the system as capitalistic, and argue that even the government authorities are rude, since they insinuate that there needs to be protection of the fish stocks – “when the reality is that the tuna fishing has become commercialized, and [most] Maltese fishermen, due to their artisanal nature, have remained out of the loop”.

“Although fishermen seem to be conscious of their situation, they perceive themselves as the ‘small fish’ who are unable to change their destiny. In a fisherman’s words: ‘I understand that the small fish never ate the big fish, and thus we are not going to be able to overturn the situation of the purse seiner’.” 

The Durrell scientists say the very same fishermen who in 2001 battled against foreign companies like Ricardo Fuentes, who affected their fishing rights, are today more prone to struggle among each other. Unlike the big players, they have little access to political party influence, and today they are a fragmented and powerless force. 

The article is an abridged version of Said et al’s Bluefin tuna fishery policy in Malta: The plight of artisanal fishermen caught in the capitalist net, published in Marine Policy