Artisanal fishermen being edged out of Maltese waters, study finds

According to a study, Maltese artisinal fishermen are constantly losing out to other marine activities, in the competition for Malta's seas

Artisanal fishermen have been forced to give up fishing grounds 'to the point where the ability to fish is becoming increasingly challenging'
Artisanal fishermen have been forced to give up fishing grounds 'to the point where the ability to fish is becoming increasingly challenging'

Maltese artisanal fishermen are constantly losing out to other marine activities in the competition for Malta’s seas, according to a study carried out by the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent and the Department of Geography at University College London. 

In a research paper published in the journal Applied Geograph it was found that artisanal fishermen have been forced to give up fishing grounds and co-exist with others “to the point where the ability to fish is becoming increasingly challenging”.

In order to determine and quantify the challenges posed by a lack of space, the researchers mapped the distribution of vessels within three nautical miles of Malta’s coast, using data from vessel tracking systems, as well as the areas being used for other activities.

The marine activities considered to be competing for space with fishermen were shipping, bunkering, aquaculture, trawling, as well as areas marked as conservation zones, sewage outfall sites, spoil dumping sites and dive sites. 

The study also included a number of interviews with fishermen and policy-makers. 

Using location data from a sample of vessels making up 10.7% of the commercial fleet, the study found that 65% of fishing activity takes place within areas dominated by shipping and bunkering activities. 44% takes place within Marine Protected Areas.

It found that inshore artisanal fishing has become “squeezed by new uses which have colonized the marine zone”, arguing that the primary reason for this is that fishing boundaries are “not recognised through a legal framework”.

This has led to the sector becoming “somewhat invisible” and not properly acknowledged in the formulation of marine spatial policies.  

Martin Caruana, an artisanal fisherman, and president of the Marsaxlokk Artisanal Fishers NGO, echoed this sentiment in comments to MaltaToday. 

He said that while there were not many official restrictions, the space available for fishing was becoming increasingly smaller. One example, he said, was the part of Marsaxlokk bay which currently houses the LNG storage tanker. 

According to Caruana many small fishermen would previously, from time to time, cast their nets and traps in the area, however since the tanker’s arrival, this was no longer possible. 

Similarly, Caruana said that in the past he used to fish at a particular location off Delimara. “You wouldn’t dream of going there now because you’d end up getting hit by a ship,” he said, adding that it seemed as though there was always “something new invading the territory”.

According to the research paper, despite there being no restrictive measures on Marine Protected Areas, “the current state of affairs indicates MPAs might be another encroachment onto the fishing grounds”.

Caruana said that the only area which so far included some restrictions was the area around Filfa, but he warned that if this area were to be extended it would definitely elicit a reaction from fishermen. 

Amateur fishing threat 

Despite the fact that fishermen needed to compete with different marine activities for space on the sea, Caruana pointed out that the biggest threat to the livelihood of artisanal fisherman came from illegal fishing, and a lack of enforcement by the authorities. 

He said there was no clear set of regulations stating what a person who isn’t a registered fisherman is “allowed to do at sea”. 

“At times, they end up fishing more than we do, not to mention the fact that compared to us, they’re in a great majority,” he said. 

“I and quite a few other fishermen used to catch a fish called the bazuga from about 23 miles out. It’s a prestigious fish and gets a good price on the market but in the last eight years or so, people have become obsessed with it and many leisure fishermen have started going out in search of it in their cabin cruisers,” said Caruana, adding that with so much competition, many fishermen, himself included, were choosing to stay home. 

“There are so many [leisure fishermen] that if you were to take the fishing sector as a whole I would say that they catch more fish than fishermen do,” he said.  

Caruana also stressed that these hobbyists had no bag limits, because they were not registered fishermen, but were still selling their fish to restaurants “illegally”. 

Moreover, in addition to invading prime fishing spots, Caruana said that amateur fishermen were also able to fish in areas that were very far out, unlike artisanal fishermen. 

“Some of them are going up to 70 miles offshore on cabin cruisers,” he said. “They’re definitely fishing and they’re also selling it. You have to spend a significant amount of money on diesel to go out that far.”

Another issue flagged by Caruana was the fact that while enforcement and controls on fishermen had increased, amateur fishermen were not subject to such controls. 

“If a patrol boat sees a fishing vessel they’ll approach it and ask to see logbooks, documents, and ask all sorts of questions, but if it’s a cabin cruiser they just assume it has nothing to do with fishing,” he said. 

Areas restricted because of diving were also a growing pressure on the fishing sector. 

“A couple of months ago I was stopped by the enforcement agency. The officer told me that I cannot deploy my fishing nets because the area is for divers,” one interviewed fishermen told the researchers. 

“I don’t know how they expect me to earn my living. They are designating everywhere as a divers’ area. A fisherman cannot work out at sea during the bad weather, so we need to find these sheltered areas for fishing.”

‘Working on the land was not for me’

Given that artisanal fishing has shown itself to be sustainable, the paper argues, it should not be deprived of the necessary space, especially when implementing policies on protected areas. 

It notes that while it might be tempting for governments to push for “alternative livelihoods”, this might not be a solution as some might be too old, or otherwise unable to reinvent their personal skill set.

“I do not speak English so tourism is not a good option for me because I will not be able to communicate,” said one fisherman. 

“I love my job and I go crazy if I don’t go fishing. I tried to work on the land but I realized it’s not for me,” said another artisanal fisherman. 

More in National