Saturday, 12th March 2011

Talking Point

Tuna wars in Maltese territory

Martin Galea

Our appreciation for the environment has come a long way. Certainly for many of us involved with NGOs it is much easier to get our arguments across. Everyone understands our point of view and, generally, we garner sympathy from the population at large. This has made our voice stronger. The government knows, as the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Mario de Marco said in his Talking Point earlier this month, the environment is high on peoples’ list of concerns and the government needs to cater for this. We still have a long way to go but there has been progress nonetheless.

Where our seas are concerned, however, we are still stuck in the 1970s. Our heads are buried firmly in the sand with the few environmentalists who bother to shout being looked at as cranks. People look away, sadly shaking their heads with a knowing smile thinking “they are always grumbling about something”!

Only this will explain why we have been able to pump raw sewage into our seas till now at Rinella, Ċumnija and Mġarr ix-Xini. It was only the EU which forced us to change (same as Magħtab, remember). The incremental diminishing of sea life is not noticeable to most and is, therefore, out of sight and mind. Lack of data, confusing and opposing statistics and experts trotting out ­diametrically opposing views have all left us a bit confused as to what is the situation. But a storm is brewing.

We are facing a very serious situation and will have a catastrophic collapse in fish stocks in the near future. This will start with the most obvious – tuna and swordfish – but we will continue to destroy species and habitats until the Mediterranean becomes the dead sea or we come to our senses and react. As these large predator fish decrease, so will the smaller fry increase, creating an imbalanced ecosystem.

Jellyfish blooms have not become more frequent but they are now constant. We hunt tuna with spotter planes and sophisticated sonar; if that doesn’t smack of hunting to extinction I don’t know what does. We have good examples elsewhere. Cod was overfished almost to extinction in the North Sea.

The massive shoals that fed many north European countries are no more. It culminated in the so-called cod wars between England and Iceland but both lost out to greed. There is no cod left that can be fished commercially.

Here we have the tuna wars. We have heard how the EU wanted to cut tuna quotas and it was Malta, through the then Minister for the Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries, George Pullicino, and the Prime Minister who vehemently opposed this in international fora. They argued it was to protect local fishermen but, somehow, I don’t buy that. It was more to protect the commercial tuna companies, which bring good foreign currency to Malta.

But who will be accountable if the tuna stock does run out and the species becomes extinct as some scientists warn? The quotas are hardly watertight as the countries that ostensibly respect them only cover half the Mediterranean. The other half is totally unregulated. So attributing responsibility is also a problem.

Tuna is not the only problem. A tour of the fish shops will show many baby swordfish being sold illegally. The price of swordfish makes it attractive to catch and one cannot see many fishermen throwing €200 back into the sea. But if this continues we know we are heading for trouble.

Overfishing close to our shores is evident to those who have diving goggles and a pair of flippers and photos of harpoon competitions in the 1960s show catches which are all but impossible today. Anecdotal evidence perhaps but it all points to a growing problem.

It is heartening to hear the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is extending the number of marine parks from one to four. But is it a question of too little too late; the structure plan of 20 years ago called for about 10?

It is with this in mind that Din l-Art Ħelwa has brought together stakeholders to discuss these issues at a forthcoming conference. Speakers will include former EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg, marine biologist and environmentalist Alan Deidun, former Greenpeace activist Caroline Muscat, John Refalo, of Azzopardi Fisheries, and representatives from Mepa, the Department of Fisheries and the MaltaAqua Research Centre among others. It is likely that sparks will fly because much is at stake but the conference invites serious debate too.

It is crucial we do not continue burying our heads in the sand. We must know what is going on and we must take appropriate action to protect our natural assets. It is in the interests of all: businessmen, environmentalists, citizens.

The author is a council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa