The Bluefin tuna policy has deeper ramifications than ‘slime’ in our swimming zones. The consequences of the policy have an impact on the ecosystems, the socio-economic profile of the fishing communities, the diving industry and the Maltese social fabric at large.
by Alicia Said
Image by Wild Wonders of Europe /Zankl/ WWF
When ‘tuna’ is a topic of daily conversations, it is mostly slime that the individuals and media portals discuss. It is perfectly normal to focus on what is visible, and slime from fish farms certainly is. Yes, ‘slime’ does affect ecosystems. It causes havoc to beaches, and, if it remains unmanaged, it will disrupt the Maltese tourism industry.
However, if one digs deep into the causes of the ‘slime’, they will find out that ‘slime’ is one of the multiple consequences of a serious systemic problem, facilitated by the Bluefin tuna policy. This policy has deeper ramifications that are having even greater impacts on the ecosystems, the socio-economic profile of the fishing communities, the diving industry and the Maltese social fabric at large.
Tuna Fishery and the Global Market’s Appetite
A scientific study, that my colleagues and I undertook recently, established that the EU and Maltese policy, working in the interest of global market forces, have re-shaped the socio-ecological structure of Bluefin tuna fishery. These policies gave a blessing to the expansion of the industrial sector—at the expense of the artisanal fishing.
The introduction of purse seiners overhauled the long-established national legislation that had previously restricted their licensing on the basis of sustainability and in order to prevent monopolization on the tuna catches.
The plight of the artisanal fishing sector has been gradual. It received the first blow in 2005—a year after Malta joined the EU—with the licensing of the purse seiner. The purse seiners are boats which are equipped with large fishing nets that capture the Bluefin tuna, retaining it in its ‘live’ state to be taken into tuna pens and fattened—tuna ranching. This official move overhauled the long-established national legislation that had previously restricted the licensing of such vessels on the basis of sustainability and in order to prevent monopolization on the tuna catches. The operations of the tuna purse seiner were fully legitimized through a government-issued pilot study in 2007.
The year 2009 brought in the Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ)—a type of catch share, allocated to individual fishers or consortiums, which can be transferred or leased out. The quotas were introduced with a purpose of conservation of tuna population by controlling the fishing effort and tuna captures. These quotas were based on historical catches.
The new policy made it easier for the purse seiners—who are also the owners of the tuna ranching facilities—to seize, through legitimate means, the major portion of the national quota.
Since Malta had never had purse seine operators, and thus had no historical records registered with the international authorities (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas—ICCAT), its participation in the fishery could only become legitimized through enabling the transfer of quotas between artisanal fishermen (with catch records) and the purse seine operators. Given this reality, and with the consent of the fishing co-operatives, the practice of transferring quotas ensued. In practical terms, the new policy made it easier for the purse seiners—who are also the owners of the tuna ranching facilities—to seize, through legitimate means, the major portion of the national quota for the benefit of the tuna ranching industry.
Hence, the tuna fishery in Malta has moved from being operated entirely by the hook-and-line artisanal fisheries to becoming dominated by the tuna ranching segment which controls both the lease and export market for the tuna fishery. In other words, the tuna ranching industry has become the real owner of the national Bluefin tuna quota—and its expansion has been orchestrated by the policy mechanisms that favour the ‘efficient’ fishing over the artisanal.
Big Fish vs Small Fish (…Outside Malta’s Auberge de Castille)
The purse seining sector and the associated tuna ranching sectors have become the prime owners of the Maltese tuna fishery. Unfortunately, things are unlikely to change any time soon, as artisanal fishers are too fragmented to join efforts in fighting a system that is disempowering them. Although fishermen seem to be conscious of their plight, they perceive themselves as the proverbial ‘small fish’ who are unable to change their destiny. In a fisherman’s words: “I understand that the small fish never ate the big fish, and thus we are not going to be able to overturn the situation of the purse seiner.”
Attempts to downturn this trajectory proved to be unsuccessful since fishermen are not unified enough to challenge the industry which determines their livelihood, as explained by a fisherman:
…we tried to raise awareness amongst the fishermen—but those without quotas don’t like us because we have quota and they don’t. So we could do nothing together… I ended up trying to challenge the situation with another four fishermen, but with time I realized it is useless. In fact, I realized that I have to shut my mouth because these large companies have become the commanding regime in Malta. I depend on them, whether I like it or not, because they export my fish.
Tellingly, a few weeks ago I have come across a small sculpture stating the exact same words just outside Auberge de Castille. One wonders what is actually being done by the government to assist the fishermen in their fight against unjust policies that are only chipping away at the sustainability of the fishing sector and the ecosystems at large.
Fishers are Chasing Smaller Fisheries … But How Sustainable is This?
Changes in policy have tangible effects. Fishers explained that the challenges, brought about by the reforms of the Bluefin tuna fishery in the past years, had a snowball effect on other type of fisheries systems. In order to compensate for the loss of profit from tuna fishery and to make a living, fishers have no other option but to spend many more days at sea and catch other fish species.
In order to compensate for the loss of profit from tuna fishery and to make a living, fishers have no other option but to spend many more days at sea and catch other fish species.
Fishers highlight that the artisanal fishing activity during what was before the Bluefin tuna season (between April and July) became displaced by other fisheries—mainly trammel netting and gill netting, targeting demersal and small pelagic fish respectively. Official statistics show that between 2007 and 2012 the days at sea (fishing effort) on trammel nets increased by 4,500% while gillnets increased by 870%.
This shift in the fishing effort is having a toll on the ecosystem. The never-ending lines of nets being deployed in the seas for months on end, without any form of monitoring or feasibility studies, raise questions on sustainability. In other words, not only did the conservation of tuna leave fishers worse off, but it is also causing damage to other fisheries systems and dependent economic sectors, such as the diving industry whose stakeholders continuously warn about the steadily decreasing number of fish in the coastal waters.
A Ray of Hope? Not Yet!
Although the tuna is coming back and the fish is showing steady recovery, the fishermen are not reaping the fruits of the conservation efforts they had to endure for 10 years.
Some positive changes have taken place this year (2018) with the quota of over 25 tonnes being allocated specifically for small-scale fishers. Fishers without a Bluefin tuna permit were allowed to land 2000kg each, however, a lot of questions were raised about who actually benefited from such a quota. What measures were in place to ensure that the quota is truly to be utilised by artisanal fishers? With a planned increase in the next two years, one hopes to see a more strategic implementation of the Bluefin tuna quota system. There is an urgent need to monitor the social justice component of the tuna fishery in a way that truly fulfills the social, economic and ecological sustainability of our fisheries and the society in general.