War on the high seas: Tunisian plundering Maltese and Gozitan lampuki catches

EXCLUSIVE • Gozitan fishing grounds plundered mercilessly by Tunisian ‘armada’ of poachers who steal annual lampuki catch • Witnesses say poachers are protected by the ‘Bin Laden’, the nickname for the ramming boat threatening Maltese fishermen

The situation is tense with Maltese fishers reporting being threatened by the Tunisians wielding machetes and Molotov cocktails
The situation is tense with Maltese fishers reporting being threatened by the Tunisians wielding machetes and Molotov cocktails

Maltese lampuki fishers are seeing their catches plundered by Tunisian counterparts in what is a veritable war on the high seas, MaltaToday has learnt.

The situation is tense with Maltese fishers reporting being threatened by the Tunisians wielding machetes and Molotov cocktails.

Fishers have also documented the presence of a large, green Tunisian vessel, nicknamed Bin Laden, which threatens to ram Maltese boats.

Earning its nickname from a drawing of the notorious bearded terrorist on the side of its cabin, this 65-foot vessel is called on by the Tunisians when they need added muscle to keep the Maltese at bay.

Fisherman Anthony Zammit said Tunisians departing from the port city of Sfax, were fishing off the floats laid out by Maltese fishers.

While fishing off the floats of others is not strictly illegal, Zammit said the Tunisians were destroying the floats and lines in the process of hauling in their catch, and using strong-arm tactics to stop the Maltese from accessing their equipment.

The Tunisians fishers gather in droves along the lines laid out at angles defined by the Maltese authorities.

“One time my radar pinged 30 Tunisian vessels within a six-mile radius,” Zammit said, adding this has been a 10-year feud.

Their worst nightmare: a Maltese fisher’s radar reveals boats placing themselves onto the fishing lines they have laid out to catch their lampuki.
Their worst nightmare: a Maltese fisher’s radar reveals boats placing themselves onto the fishing lines they have laid out to catch their lampuki.

The lampuki season kicks off on 10 August and fishers lay out their kannizzati, floats under which fish shelter, along long lines in areas defined by the authorities. The first floats are normally laid out some eight miles from the Maltese coastline, heading out for a further 100 miles.

The angle at which the floats are laid out is determined by Maltese law but the lines extend far out into international waters, where countries have limited jurisdiction.

Arthur Micallef, another lampuki fisher, believes the Tunisians are receiving specific information from Malta on which lines and floats to fish on.

“They prey on areas along our lines where the fish is abundant. If I manage to catch around 100 crates of fish from particular floats, until I offload the catch in Malta and return back to sea, there are already five Tunisian vessels in that same area,” Micallef said.

He also noted that Tunisian fishers were using larger nets to circle the fish, which increases their yield.

“To put you into perspective, with our nets we fill a crate, with their nets they fill 10. They not only steal fish which should be ours, but proceed to destroy our gear which we spend months working on,” Micallef said.

The situation has become a daily occurrence, especially for Gozitan fishers, who fish at a more northerly angle.

“We have no other option other than to fish, while we see others steal our catch,” Micallef said.

Other fishers who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity spoke of constant provocations by the Tunisian fishers.

“We had fishing boats threatening us with machetes and Molotov cocktails and some Tunisian boats are also trying to ram ours, in some instances coming as close as two feet away from us,” they said.

A particular Tunisian vessel has also garnered a reputation among the Maltese. The 65-foot boat has been nicknamed Bin Laden by Maltese fishers because it sports a picture of the terrorist on its side.

This large vessel fishes among the other Tunisian boats, but when confrontation ensues it is called upon to provide muscle.

Maltese fishers said this boat found no issue with directing its bow towards the Maltese vessels and driving at full-speed towards them.

“You either get out of the way or you’re done. You may try to bluff a little bit with the other boats, but when you see the Bin Laden coming, you just run,” one fisher continued.

But while many Maltese fishers are sometimes overwhelmed by the situation, some are fighting back.

One fisher, who insisted on anonymity, said he was taking his own hunting shotguns with him at sea.

“I am scared, when we see them. I start trembling, and out there no one can protect you,” he said, adding the shotguns were a means of self-defence.

He claims to have never used his gun but fishers recounted incidents of Maltese who have fired on the Tunisians.

“If things don’t change, blood will be shed,” the fishers insisted.

But not all Maltese are keen to fight back. Micallef believes that retaliating may result in the Tunisians fighting back when they go back out to fish.

“I don’t go there to fight, I go there to work,” he insisted.

The situation has left fishers with Hobson’s choice. They either chase the Tunisians off and in the process, scare off any lampuki in the vicinity, or fish on the rest of the available floats.

But even the latter option has become an issue. On some lines, while three Tunisian boats are fishing, another keeps the Maltese busy, preventing them from fishing.

The fishers are requesting drastic action from the authorities.

“We have been forgotten. The Maltese authorities should talk to their authorities and let them know about what is happening out there. If nothing is solved we should go to the European Commission,” they said, venting their frustration.

Fishers are running out of options and they fear being driven out of the industry.

“Are we done? Have we become irrelevant to the government? They always say they will do something about it, but one season after another, nothing is getting fixed and the situation is getting worse,” the fishers said.

 Unabashed thievery: this Tunisian fishing boat is photographed stealing the Maltese and Gozitan kannizzatti with their fishing nets
Unabashed thievery: this Tunisian fishing boat is photographed stealing the Maltese and Gozitan kannizzatti with their fishing nets

Fishing parliament secretary Clint Camilleri said this situation has been happening for years.

“This is a problem that we know about, and a couple of days ago we discussed the matter with the AFM, to determine different possibilities on how we can protect the fishers,” Camilleri said.

“The reality is that up to 25 miles out, within the Maltese fishing zone, the AFM can intervene, and we have a memorandum of understanding as a secretariat with the army on the protection of Maltese fishers, but there’s only so much we can do in international waters,” Camilleri added.

He said the government has considered taking the issue to the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), the body in charge of fishing in the Mediterranean Sea.

“This is something that has to be dealt with in that forum, as the AFM cannot intervene in international waters in the name of Maltese fishers, and only there can the issue be resolved with the Tunisian authorities,” he said.

How Lampuki are caught

Lampuki fishermen spend the off-season preparing the apparatus called ‘cimi’.

Cimi are a palm tree branch knotted with a floating jablo raft, which is then anchored to the seabed. Lampuki proceed to seek shade under the large palm leaf.

Cimi are set at an angle of coordinates determined by a lottery system before each season begins.

The first float is dropped at a distance of around 8 miles from Malta’s coastline, while the last one is at a distance of around 100 miles.

The fishermen proceed from one float to another, encircling the resting fish with a large net, which is dragged towards the boat, entrapping the fish in the process.

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