Update 2 | Fish farm permits revoked, operations to continue under strict guidelines

The Planning Authority has revoked the permits of four fish farm operators, who will still be able to operate within the paramenters of a declaration of intent, as they address any illegalities

The Planning Authority voted unanimously to revoke the permits of the four fish farms
The Planning Authority voted unanimously to revoke the permits of the four fish farms

The Planning Authority has revoked the permits of the four fish farm operators in Malta, citing illegalities, but opertions will continue under strict guidelines, as the four companies regularies their positions and address any illegalities identified.

Fish & Fish Ltd, Malta Fish Farms Ltd, AJD Ltd and Malta Mariculture Ltd, will now be bound to operate strictly within the parameters of a declaration of intent that they themselves proposed and signed and which was accepted by the Planning Authority's enforcement directorate before the board meeting. 

The board voted unanimously in the case of each operator and chairman Vince Cassar warned that failure by the operators to adhere to the commitments they undertook in their declaration of intent, would lead the Planning Authority to take immediate direct action.

In the wake of revelations that around half their fish cages were illegal, the Planning Authority board had met two weeks ago to decide whether or not to revoke the permits of the four tuna farms. It had then gaiven fish farm operators until today 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.

At the start of today's hearing, PA executive chairman Johann Buttigieg informed the board that the four operators had signed a declaration of intent in which they committed themselves to addressing the illegalities in their operations.

He said the directorate was still recommending that the permits be revoked in the meantime since it was evident that illegalities had been registered.

Franco Vassallo, legal representative for MFF Ltd, asked the board that the document not be published, but Cassar noted that he could not ask the board to debate and vote based on a document submitted without making that document available to the public. MFF Ltd then agreed that the document be published and withdrew its objection.

Lawyer John Refalo, representing Fish & Fish Ltd, said that the undertaking in the signed declaration was clear and that the operators had placed no conditions whatsoever on the terms included.

He insisted that the declaration of intent was not an admission of guilt on the part of the operators, but that it was merely stating how they intended to deal with the cages and the rest of the operations.

But Robert Ablea, the PA’s legal representative, pointed out that in the declaration itself, the four operators had clearly acknowledged that illegalities had been taking place and that they intended to address the illegalities.

Buttigieg then asked the operators to publicly indicate when the cages had been placed and – in certain cases – removed.

MFF Ltd declared that it had placed a 50m tuna cage at the beginning of August this year and removed it on 19 August. A 20m tuna cage had been placed in March this year and removed on 20 September.

Its cages for the farming of sea-bream (awrat) had been placed in 2011.

Fish & Fish Ltd declared that it had installed six 50m tuna cages in 2014, and that one of them was removed last week.

AJB Ltd said that its Comino farm was now within permit guidelines and that it had eight other cages in St Paul’s Bay. An additional cage in the same area was installed in 2009, upon agreement with the fisheries department, for scientific research.

The company said that, in accordance with the commitments in the declaration of intent, it had already dismantled two of the cages, a third would be dismantled by Friday and another one removed next week.

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja reacts to the PA board's decision
Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja reacts to the PA board's decision

Buttigieg informed the board that enforcement directorate found the declarations submitted by the operators acceptable.

“But I want to point out for the record that for every illegal cage set up under may watch, the enforcement directorate took immediate action,” he said.

Prof. Ian Refalo, for MFF Ltd, said that it was equally true that the company had appealed the enforcement notices issued, and the board should therefore not revoke the permits until the appeal ran its course.

But Abela pointed out that companies should immediately have ceased operations when the enforcement notices were issued, but had chosen to carry on operating illegally.

Lawyer Pio Valletta said that in the previous meeting, the board had decided on a two-weekk extension so that the operators could try and reach an agreement with the PA.

“Now there is an agreement in place, and the operators are already regularising their positions,” he said. “It would be counter-productive to revoke the permits now, even because of the devastating effects such a decision would have.”

“The operators, for example, will not be able to sell the fish in the cages, since they need a permit to sell the fish.”

Abela insisted that the fish in the cages should not have been there in the first place, because of the enforcement notices in place.

“This is a problem the operators brought upon themselves,” he said. “For many years, they have continued to operate illegally and to profit from it, so now they can solve their problems themselves.”

The board ultimately voted to revoke the permits of all four operators, who could now continue operating under the remit of the declaration of intent, while they regularised their position.

The twelve members of the board all voted unanimously in favour of the revocation in the case of each of the four operators.

In a statement issued after the conclusion of the hearing, environment minister Jose Herrera welcomed the board’s decision to revoke the fish farm operators’ permits.

The decision was further evidence of the government’s commitment to tackle these illegalities, after many years of non-action, the ministry said.

Herrera urged the operators to follow the PA’s instructions on relocating their cages to off-shore aquaculture zones.

The Nationalist Party too welcomed the PA’s decision and the fact the operators had drawn up a plan of how to move the tuna pens off shore while respecting environmental standards.

The PN called on the PA to ensure that the plan be carried out and expressed hope that what had happened this year does not occur again in the future.

Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party commended the decision whilst expressing caution. "Weak enforcement, particularly in environmental issues, has always been the order of the day, thus leading to a degraded state of our environment," spokesperson Simon Galea said.

"Fish farm operations are no exception and infringements have been carried out for a number of years, resulting in the issue of a number of enforcement orders which in return have been ignored by the same operators. One of the negative impacts experienced has been contamination of our coastal waters through foamy slime thus preventing people from swimming. Moreover, this has caused damage to the country's economy, which is also based on tourism. The dragging of  feet by the authorities only ended after a public uproar."

Galea said AD remains skeptic when taking into account the number of related enforcement orders issued and ignored in the past.

"Revoking operation permits is one thing whilst assuring that such illegal operations cease is another thing. Environmental justice is only restored when such illegal operations truly stop. Where operators fail to cooperate then concrete measures should be undertaken including the  towing away of cages and the release of tuna fish, something which up to this date no administration has had the courage to implement."

Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party commended the PA’s decision whilst expressing caution.

Simon Galea, AD’s spokesperson on agriculture, said that weak enforcement, particularly in environmental issues, had always been the order of the day, thus leading to a degraded state of the country’s environment.

“Fish farm operations are no exception and infringements have been carried out for a number of years, resulting in the issue of a number of enforcement orders which in return have been ignored by the same operators,” he said.

Galea said that one of the negative impacts experienced was contamination of coastal waters through foamy slime, preventing people from swimming, and damaging the tourism industry.

“The dragging of feet by the authorities only ended after a public uproar,” he said.

Galea said AD remained skeptical in view of the number of related enforcement orders that had been issued but ignored in the past.

“Revoking operation permits is one thing whilst assuring that such illegal operations cease is another thing,” he said. “Environmental justice is only restored when such illegal operations truly stop.”

Galea called for concrete measures should the operators fail to cooperate, including the towing away of cages and the release of tuna fish, something which – he said – no administration had ever had the courage to implement.

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