Times of Malta, 8 September 2010

This year, the European Commission decided to close the bluefin tuna season one week earlier, recalling its purse seine fishing fleet after the catch quotas had been reached earlier than expected. This is not the good news it might appear to be because the tuna massacre is set to continue as European fishermen flying non-European flags of convenience continue to fish. Non-EU boats are estimated to be responsible for about 40 per cent of the total bluefin tuna catch in the Mediterranean.

It is now common knowledge that the Mediterranean tuna is an endangered species but, unfortunately, it is not only the tuna that is threatened with extinction. By the European Commission’s own admission, in the case of 88 per cent of European stocks “overfishing is so serious that more fish would be caught if there was less fishing”. Almost 20 per cent of stocks are in such a bad state that scientists advise there should be no fishing at all.

Local numbers confirm this because our very own National Statistics Office provides historical figures for fish landings. Leaving aside the well-known sad numbers for tuna landings, turning to swordfish landings we learn that 30,000 tonnes were caught in the first six months of 2001. In the corresponding period nine years later, in 2010, our fishermen landed 150,000 tonnes, an increase of a whopping 500 per cent. Although at first sight this might appear to be a testimony to the efficiency of our fishermen, this is not the case.

Most of us will remember that a decade ago truly enormous swordfish weighing over 500kg used to lie on the fishmonger’s chopping block and that the diameter of a swordfish steak used to be much bigger than the largest dinner plate. Nowadays, a swordfish steak is more the size of a side plate. This, of course, means that there are no big swordfish left to catch and that only the smaller ones, weighing about 100kg, are landing on the fishmonger’s chopping block. Which, in turn, means there are less mature swordfish to produce baby swordfish with the logical consequence that there are less swordfish all around. And, yet, we continue to increase the weight of swordfish landings and persist in selling and consuming baby swordfish, which, incidentally, is also yet another unenforced illegal practice.

The story does not stop at tuna and swordfish. If we compare the variety of fish on the stalls today with that of a few years back we will notice a few interesting things.

First of all, there is always a show of locally farmed fresh sea bass and bream, which is not in itself a bad thing. There is also plenty of imported fish of unknown origin such as snapper, grouper, imported mussels and other assorted shells. Where are the sargi, kaħli, aċċol, denċi, ċeren, trill – local species that used to be such common fare? Certainly not at the fishmonger’s.

The answer is simple: They don’t exist anymore in our waters in appreciable quantities. You can easily confirm this personally by donning a pair of goggles and taking a look at the sterile marine desert we now have under the sea’s surface. Nowadays, you are considered lucky if you see a fish longer than your middle finger. We have overfished our seas with illegal and unsustainable practices like fishing with small mesh nets, small hooks, scuba-assisted harpoons, pollution and climate change.

This is a worldwide problem. The truth is that there is just not enough fish in the sea to satisfy the ever-increasing demand. Instead of trying to find a long-term solution to these problems, the fishing industry’s eyes are turning towards the Pacific but this is not the answer. Politicians continue to ignore the advice of scientists about how these fisheries should be managed and the need to fish these threatened species in a sustainable way. Despite this, EU member states plan to expand their catches, especially in distant fishing grounds such as the Pacific. Pacific island countries depend on these stocks as a source of income and food but often stand no chance in competition with the large fishing fleets of distant water fishing nations.

EU trawlers circumnavigate the planet searching for octopus, squid, shrimp, bottom-dwelling fish, such as cod and hake and deep-water species of fish, such as redfish. Bottom trawling is among the most indiscriminate and destructive forms of fishing. It destroys sea-floor habitats, including highly vulnerable deep-sea corals, leaving trawled areas almost devoid of life.

Can something be done to save the situation? To its credit, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority has designated four new marine protected areas and this is surely a step in the right direction. Given an effective management plan, unshackled by political interests and backed up by rigid enforcement, fish will, hopefully, regenerate in these areas and spill over into the other unprotected areas. This has happened in other countries, as close to home as the south of Sicily and the results have proved to be overwhelmingly positive.

The EU must implement the forthcoming reformed EU Common Fisheries Policy, which will, hopefully, include provisions for accountability in policy, management and traceability of seafood products, besides more science-based decision making in the capping of Total Allowable Catches at scientifically recommended levels.

In this game there are the winners and the losers. The winners will be the big fishing industries and, more often than not, the politicians. It is time that we collectively realise that the consumer and the fisherman shall be the losers unless we do something concrete to preserve the marine environment.

The consumer will suffer because future generations will not have any fish to eat that has not been artificially bred in a farm and the small scale fisherman will not have any fish to catch.

The author is a council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa (the National Trust of Malta).