Updated | Fish farms reject PL claims extra costs behind refusal to relocate offshore

Deborah Schembri insists fish farm operators already have a permit to shift their operations further offshore, but fish farm federation says permit actually belongs to Fisheries Department which in turn allots concessions to operators 

Parliamentary secretary for planning Deborah Schembri and PL MP Franco Mercieca
Parliamentary secretary for planning Deborah Schembri and PL MP Franco Mercieca
Relocation of tuna farms 'won't cost jobs' - Deborah Schembri

Fish farm operators have denied the Labour Party’s claims that their refusal to relocate their operations to a designated zone was due to the higher costs that such a move would incur.

In a press conference earlier today, planning parliamentary Deborah Schembri vehemently denied the PN’s warnings that revoking the permits of fish farm operators in breach of the law will threaten the jobs of hundreds of workers.

She told MaltaToday that fish farm owners already have a permit to operate in a designated aquaculture zone six nautical miles off the south-eastern coast of Malta.

“They don’t even have to apply for a new permit, because they already have one,” she said. “The reason they’re reluctant to relocate further offshore is because their initial outlay will increase, as they will have to purchase equipment to deal with the stronger currents.

“However, it’s a multimillion business and that’s not a valid excuse to allow them to continue operating close to the shore and force people to swim in slimy waters.”

However, the Federation for Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP) in a statement insisted that their resistance against a move to the aquaculture zone had nothing to do with costs, but rather due to issues of safety, space and regulations.

“The fact that all the operators will be placed within one small zone creates a great risk for the operations, the stock and the environment,” FMAP executive secretary John Refalo said in a statement. “The risk is compounded by the fact that despite the fact that fish farms have now been in Malta for around 20 years, the government has not managed to publish regulations or codes of practice encoding and regulating minimum standards that are to be followed and enforced by the industry, this despite the fact that FMAP has been requesting the promulgation of such rules for years. We risk outing the proverbial cart before the horse.”

Moreover, Refalo denied Schembri’s claims that operators have a permit to operate from the zone in question, stating that the permit in question actually belongs to the Fisheries Department which in turn allots concessions within the zone to operators.

“The operators understand that relocation requires that they be given a license to operate from that zone. However to date they have no such permit and no such license.”

He noted that inshore operators have all agreed to relocate their tuna operations offshore, indeed remarking that one operator had in 2010 applied to the Planning Authority to be allowed to relocate his operations offshore but that his application has not yet been determined.

He added that sea bream and sea bass farming operations cannot be feasibly shifted offshore since the offshore zone has been specifically and exclusively made for tuna operations.

Schembri’s press conference at the Labour headquarters was held to rubbish Simon Busuttil’s environmental credentials, in light of the Opposition leader’s agreement with the Planning Authority’s recent decision to suspend a proposed revocation of four fish farm permits.

Following revelations that over half their fish cages were illegal, the PA on Tuesday 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 further offshore.

Two of the farms in question are sited off Marsaxlokk, while one is sited off Comino and the other off St Paul’s Bay.

Refalo said that two illegal cages have already been removed from the Comino farm and one from the St Paul’s Bay farm, while other cages will be removed from the other farms within the coming days.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat responded to the PA’s ruling tweeting his disappointment at the PA’s decision, arguing that the fish farm industry had years to address illegalities and relocate their fish farms operators further offshore.

However, Busuttil welcomed the PA’s decision, arguing that revoking the permits risk destroying the entire industry, which would jeopardise the jobs of hundreds of workers. In comments to MaltaToday, the PN leader also claimed that Muscat was actually in favour of the PA’s decision, but had acted disappointed so as to earn environmental credentials to make up for the flak he had received following the PA’s approval of the Townsquare and Mriehel high-rise projects.   

Yet Deborah Schembri insisted that her and Muscat’s criticism of the PA’s ruling served as proof of the PA’s autonomy from the central government.

“The government drafts policies, but authorities take decisions,” Schembri said. “This case is a sign that the Planning Authority is completely independent from government.”

The Labour government has often come under the cosh for its environmental policies – most notably the American University of Malta project that will be partially sited at Zonqor, the high-rise projects at Townsquare and Mriehel, and a LNG tanker that is set to be sited in Marsaxlokk bay as part of the power station project.

However, Schembri rolled off a string of environmental successes by her government – including its hard stance on fish farms, enforcement notices against the owners of the derelict Jerma and Mistra Village hotels, the removal of illegal structures from the Montebello Estate, and clamp downs on illegal scrapyards.

“On the other hand, Busuttil likes to act like an environmental champion, but when it comes to the si o no, his lack of credibility is clear to see,” she said.

The press conference was also addressed by Labour MP Franco Mercieca, who accused Busuttil of being “part of the elite, against workers, and against the South”.

“He is in favour of the PA’s decision not to revoke fish farm permits, he is in favour of expanding the Freeport into ODZ land, and he is against the American University of Malta project,” he said. “All of those stances go against the people from the South.” 

‘Muscat has no environmental credibility’ – PN

Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party said that its position on fish farms is one that strikes a balance between the economy and the environment.

“Busuttil has always been consistent in his positions, and indeed spoke out against the MEPA demerger, the high-rise permits, and the destruction of Zonqor,” the PN said in a statement. “In contrast, Muscat is inconsistent and takes stances according to what suits him at the time. Nobody believes that he is disappointed in the Planning Authority’s decision on fish farms, as everyone knows that the PA does exactly what he tells it to, as it did on the LNG tanker, the Zonqor case, and the skyscrapers in Mriehel and Sliema.”

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