‘No evidence’ of smuggling by untracked vessels, fisheries director insists

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture has dismissed that a lack of oversight of Malta's fishing vessels fleet is leaving the door open to smuggling operations  

Fisheries department director Andreina Fenech Farrugia
Fisheries department director Andreina Fenech Farrugia

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) has dismissed that a lack of oversight of Malta’s fishing vessel fleet is leaving the door open to smuggling operations.

Last week, the Auditor General’s (AG) office published a report on an audit focusing on the way in which the DFA carries out its role its inspectorate function intended to protect the industry.

In its report, the AG’s office found that “the vast majority of Malta’s fishing fleet” was not equipped with tracking devices such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which is installed on all vessels over 15m in length, the Vessel Monitoring system (VMS) installed on vessels over 12m and the General Pocket Radio Service (GPRS) which is installed on vessels licensed to fish for protected species.

The audit found that 196 of Malta’s 376 vessels registered as professional vessels and 507 out 545 registered as part-time vessels, do not have any traffic system whatsoever. This in addition to some 2,012 vessels registered as recreational fishing vessels, which also do not possess any form of tracking system.

“NAO is concerned that the vast majority of professional fishing vessels are not equipped with such systems,” the audit found, adding that the “DFA has practically no means by which to remotely monitor the movements of a very large portion of the local fishing fleet”.

The NAO said that vessels which are not equipped with tracking devices, pose the risk of them going at sea and engaging in fishing activity out of the official seasons without being tracked by the Department.

“Apart from this principle of limited visibility, NAO here also perceives unfair treatment towards fishermen who officially declare their intention to target protected species while other equally capable vessels which deceivably fail to declare such intentions are left untracked.”

Beyond the obvious problem with the monitoring of fish stocks, fishermen who spoke with MaltaToday also voiced concerns about smuggling by owners of fishing vessels. They suggested that the department, despite being aware of illegal activity taking place, was not doing all that it could to stem such operations to the extent that could be considered to be aiding and abetting such practices. They said that operators with the necessary political or DFA contacts could get away with a lot more than most fishermen.

In recent years, a number of registered fishing vessels have been detained by local and Libyan authorities over their involvement in smuggling operations and links to Libyan and Italian smugglers. The fact that several car bomb victims have been registered fishermen has also suggested a turf war between different smuggling groups operating in Malta.

However, DFA director general Andreina Fenech Farrugia insisted that this was not the case and that the department was “not aware of any evidence that suggests or implies” that the fishing vessels being referred to are being used for smuggling activities.

“It is imperative to note that anti-smuggling operations do not fall within the remit of DFA responsibilities,” Fenech Farrugia said, adding that the department could only undertake monitoring roles related to controlling abuses from “illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries”.

“The Department is not aware of any evidence that suggests or implies that the fishing vessels being referred to are being used for smuggling activities,” she said. “Fishing vessels are no more prone to illicit activities than the thousands of non-fishing vessels existing in the Maltese waters.”

She insisted that any evidence corroborating the allegations needed to be forwarded to the competent authority for the necessary action.
Fenech Farrugia said that despite the fact that the AG’s report stated that the vast majority of vessels did not possess a tracking system, there were no vessels that were legally bound to have such a system, that did not have one. She said that according EU regulations in force in across the bloc, only vessels above 12m in length were obliged to have a tracking system. “All such vessels in the Maltese fleet are equipped with the prescribed VMS.”

Severe staff shortage hampering department’s work  

The Auditor General also noted that a recurrent concern raised by the DFA related to a shortage of staff, which the DFA asserted was having negative repercussions on its operations. The audit found that in August 2018, the department had 64 vacant positions and a total staff complement of 119.

“If the 64 vacant positions are truly needed and justified, NAO opines that the Department finds itself in a situation of severe understaffing and consequently it cannot be expected to carry out its mandate to its fullest extent,” the NAO said.

The audit also found that between January 2017 and September 2018, there were 30 employees who had resigned from their post at the Department.

Fenech Farrugia again pushed back against the suggestion that no serious attempt was being made to recruit the necessary workers.
She said that like other industries, the department was suffering from a high worker turnover and little interest by prospective employees who are being offered better working conditions in other sectors.

As a public administration department, Fenech Farrugia stressed that conditions of services in the public sector were governed by specific rules and that the department did not have the flexibility to offer higher salaries for more challenging positions.

She said however, that in line with the AG’s recommendations, the DFA was looking into the possibility of redeploying existing staff to priority areas.

Moreover, she said that recently-announced plans for a new control hub in Marsa would offer staff a modern working environment which could help in attracting more employees.  

“In the meantime, DFA shall continue to exercise its control responsibilities in full respect of the law and with the required diligence,” Fenech Farrugia said.

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