Updated | Planning Authority suspends decision on revoking fish farm permits, Joseph Muscat ‘disappointed’

Planning Authority gives four fish farm operators two weeks to reach agreement with authorities on how to address illegalities and relocate operations offshore • Prime Minister: 'Industry had years to comply' • Opposition leader: 'Workers must be relieved at the decision' 

AJD Tuna owner Charles Azzopardi (centre) with his lawyer. Photo: Chris Mangion
AJD Tuna owner Charles Azzopardi (centre) with his lawyer. Photo: Chris Mangion
Planning Authority suspends decision to revoke fish farm permits

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has hit out at the Planning Authority after it suspended a decision on whether to revoke the permits of fish farms by two weeks.

In a tweet suggesting that the PA should have held its ground, Muscat said that the industry had years to address illegalities and relocate their farms further offshore.

“Very disappointed that the Planning Authority failed to decide following decisive action by government on fish farms,” he said.

In contrast, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil welcomed the PA’s decision, saying that the onus is now on the fish farm industry to prove it can meet proper environmental standards.

“Workers must surely be relieved [that the fish farm permits weren’t revoked],” he said.

At the end of a three-hour board meeting, the Planning Authority gave fish farm operators two weeks to reach an agreement with the authorities on how to address the vast illegalities in their farms and to come up with a plan to relocate the farms further offshore.

“If an agreement isn’t reached, then the PA will reserve the right to revoke the permits,” PA chairman Vince Cassar warned.

The PA board was meeting to decide whether to revoke the permits of four tuna farms – two off Marsaxlokk, one of St Paul’s Bay, and one off Comino, in the wake of revelations that around half their fish cages were illegal. 

Lawyer John Refalo (left) and his father Prof. Ian Refalo, who represent the fish farm operators
Lawyer John Refalo (left) and his father Prof. Ian Refalo, who represent the fish farm operators

Two of the farms in question are operated by AJD, one by Fish and Fish, and another by Malta Fish Farming.

The fish farm operators – represented by their lawyers Ian Refalo, John Refalo, Franco Vassallo and Pio Valletta – warned that revoking the permits will see fish farm operators lose around €150 million in fish and risk destroying the entire industry.

They urged the PA to allow them to harvest their current crop of tuna by early November and relocate their operations in time for next summer’s fishing season. 

The fish farm operators were backed by Opposition MP Ryan Callus, who argued that revoking the permits from one day to the next would be “extreme”.

“This all seems like a kneejerk reaction to public anger at the slime and at the PA’s lack of respect to the environmental shown in the past few weeks,” he said, ostensibly referring to their decision to green-light skyscrapers in Sliema and Mriehel.

He said that fish farm operators must agree to relocate their farms within specified timeframes and commit to more stringent environmental conditions in their permits, and that state monitoring of their operations should increase. 

Fish farms came under scrutiny this summer after they were blamed for slime that contaminated the sea, which Ian Refalo said was the result of a certain type of fish feed that was being fed to tuna and that has since been changed.

Fish farm operator Salvu Ellul (left) with his lawyer Franco Vassallo
Fish farm operator Salvu Ellul (left) with his lawyer Franco Vassallo

“We accept that it was a mistake to use that fish feed, but we changed it and used skimmers to clean out the slime to remedy the problem,” the seasoned lawyer said.  

Following revelations that half the tuna cages operated by four fish farms were illegal, the operators were served with an emergency enforcement order to present a statement on how they will address the illegalities.

“If the fish farm industry fails, the impact on the Maltese economy will be disastrous,” Pio Valletta warned. “The PA shouldn’t just look at the regulations, but at the consequences of their decisions.”

He also argued that the state should shoulder it share of responsibility for the environmental shortcomings of fish farms, after failing to regulate or monitor the industry. 

Ian Refalo said that revoking the permits could run counter to the Labour government’s own aquaculture policy to expand fish farm operations, as stated in a 2014 policy document.

However, PA lawyer Robert Abela and Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) chairman Victor Axiak were adamant in that the fish farm operators have been given ample time to get their house in order. 

Abela argued that the authorities would have continued closing an eye to the fish farms’ flagrant illegalities had the slime problem not erupted this summer and created a media storm. 

“We shouldn’t close an eye on their illegalities, just because they form part of an industry that generates millions of euro. What message will that send out?” 

Axiak said that the slime is only “the tip of the iceberg” as far as environmental damage caused by fish farms is concerned.

“They are now pleading that they need more time to relocate but they were told to relocate back in 2005 and failed to do so,” he said.

The Labour Party’s representative MP Joe Sammut had excused himself from the meeting, citing a conflict of interest in his work as consultant to people with a direct interest in the aquaculture industry. 

‘Proof that Busuttil is part of the elite’ – PL

The Labour Party lashed out at Busuttil’s response to the PA’s decision as proof that he is “part of the elite”.

“Busuttil is defending people who pollute the sea and working against people’s best interests,” the PL said in a statement. “While the government is taking action over this issue, the Opposition is putting people’s interests on the backburner and yet has the gall to claim that it believes in safeguarding the environment.”

‘Senseless move for Muscat to get green brownie points’ – PN

The Nationalist Party responded by insisting that Muscat’s sudden decision to revoke the fish farms’ permits was a “senseless” move, aimed solely at earning the Prime Minister environmental brownie points to counter poor environmental decisions taken by the government.

“The fish farm industry contributes €150 million to the economy every year, and hundreds of workers and their families depend on it,” PN MPs Ryan Callus, Marthese Portelli and Toni Bezzina said in a joint statement. “The public anger [at fish farms] is justified, and the industry shouldn’t be allowed to pollute the environment. The PN’s proposed solution is one of common sense that will allow fish farms to continue contributing to the economy, with respect to the environment.”