Massive new fish farm zone planned off Gozo but details are withheld from public

Offshore zone will cover an area of 484 football grounds yet details of the application will not be published before consultation takes place on the environment assessment

The present fishfarm area (smaller rectangle) compared to the new area (larger trapezium shaped site)
The present fishfarm area (smaller rectangle) compared to the new area (larger trapezium shaped site)

Details on a permanent fish farming zone in a massive offshore area at the north-east point of Malta have been withheld by the Planning Authority.

The application’s site area of 3.5 square kilometre area, the expanse of 484 football grounds, is visible on the PA’s geoserver website, but the details of the application are not publicly available, as is the case with a large number of applications reported by MaltaToday since May.

The PA took the unprecedented decision three months ago of stopping the publication of details of applications it deems as “incomplete”.

When asked, a spokesperson for the Planning Authority would not give any details about the nature of this particular application but pointed out that “since an Environment Impact Assessment has been requested” the process will include public consultation undertaken by the Environment and Resources Authority.

“Once the EIA is concluded, the application will be validated and another round of public consultation shall take place with all the information available at hand to the public.”

It is only at this stage, when the application is validated and published on the PA website, that the public will be in a position to formally object or present submissions on the application. Prior to this the public will be consulted on the terms of reference for the prospective Environment Impact Assessment.

But MaltaToday has been informed that the area coincides with plans to relocate fish farms in a larger area, which is further offshore than the temporary site to which fish farms have been relocated over the past two years.

The area identified in the latest application is 4.5km from the Qala coast and from Comino and about 5.4km from Mellieha.

In May, the PA had issued a permit which allowed operators to double the number of cages while still operating with a 3,300-tonne quota.

The temporary relocation of fish farm zones approved in May is located 4.5km from Mellieha, 6km from Comino and 7.6km from Qala, Gozo.

Critics point out that spreading fish farms over a wider area may increase enforcement problems
Critics point out that spreading fish farms over a wider area may increase enforcement problems

This makes the latest application closer to Gozo and Comino but further away from Mellieha.

An EIA was already presented last year by the Department of Fisheries for the creation of an Aquaculture Zone in the north of Malta.  

Although the extent of the site was not formally defined, the studies suggested a 4.5 sq.km site north of the Sikka l-Bajda area, which coincides with the area of the latest application. The proposal foresaw that the aquaculture zone would cater for a biomass of approximately 4,500-5,000 tonnes of fish, up from the 3,300 tonnes permitted in the temporary zone approved in May.

But no formal planning application has been presented so far.  

Birdlife Malta had expressed concern on locating fish farms in a marine protection area which includes important bird colonies.

According to sources in both ERA and the PA, the relocation to a larger site would not mean that the whole area will be covered by fish farms but will mean that operators, whose production quotas are set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), will have greater flexibility in their operations and opportunities for growth if their quotas are increased.

But critics point out that spreading fish farms over a wider area may increase enforcement problems.  

Procedural precedent for major projects

The way the Planning Authority is treating this application is indicative of how major projects are being assessed.

The public will only learn of pending application for major projects from the Environment and Resources Authority’s website as soon as the EIA process is commenced, possibly months after the application has been presented.  

The ERA normally requests the presentation of a Project Development Statement which is published on its website before issuing a call for public consultation on the ‘terms of reference’ for the EIA.  

Moreover, people will only be in a position to formally object to major projects after the EIA is completed and the application is given final validation by the Planning Authority.

This may mean that more than a year could pass between the presentation of an application and the fixing of onsite notices and the commencement of the PA’s six-week consultation period.

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