Slime and punishment

If yet another summer goes by without any action to bring tuna farms in line with their permit conditions, it would be a public admission that the entire country has its priorities clearly muddled

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It would appear to be a regular annual appointment: with each new summer, the sea at various popular beaches is invariably inundated by a think, white, gooey ‘slime’ emanating from the various tuna-penning ranches dotted around the Maltese islands.

This year was no exception, with various beaches affected, as per usual, by this unpleasant environmental menace. Indeed, the problem seems to be aggravating with each passing year. Last week, waterpolo activities had to be cancelled below Żonqor Point in Marsaskala, as an oily sludge polluted the coastline of the seaside locality, which is (or was) a popular bathing spot for locals and tourists alike.

And yet, 2018 should have been different from its predecessors, in the sense that ‘enforcement action’ was supposed to have already been taken to prevent this situation.

Two years ago, Environment minister Jose Herrera used aerial photographic evidence to confirm that this oily slime did indeed originate from the tuna penning industry. It was technically unnecessary: as early as 2009, this newspaper carried reports quoting experts who came to the same conclusion. Nonetheless, Herrera’s inquiry provided photographic evidence to dispel any doubts which may have lingered.

Even earlier, a 2012 study by the Aquaculture Institute of the University of Stirling for the Fisheries Ministry had likewise traced the slime directly to Malta’s tuna-penning ranches... and had recommended, to the government of the day, “the relocation of tuna farms to deeper waters further away from the shore”; as well as “the restriction of feeding of baitfish to tuna cages during onshore wind conditions in the summer tourist season if alternative solutions are not found”.

The study had further recommended that “a review of the tuna offal disposal should be carried out”. And yet, six years later, none of these recommendations has been taken on board.

Moreover, it would appear that the Environment Ministry’s own recommendations, from 2016, have likewise been ignored. As MaltaToday reported at the time: “At the end of a three-hour board meeting, the Planning Authority gave fish farm operators two weeks to reach an agreement with the authorities on how to address the vast illegalities in their farms and to come up with a plan to relocate the farms further offshore… ‘If an agreement isn’t reached, then the PA will reserve the right to revoke the permits,’ PA chairman Vince Cassar warned.”

Needless to add, the tuna farms have not been relocated since then; and no permits have been revoked... though a good deal more than ‘two weeks’ have elapsed since then.

Now, the Environment Ministry has yet again directed the ERA to take action against fish farm operators currently breaking the terms of their permit.

In a statement issued on Thursday afternoon, Herrera’s ministry said that investigations had been carried out, after a foamy white material, commonly known as sea slime, was reported at various beaches in the south of Malta.

“The ministry is in a position to confirm that this was, in the most part, attributable to the tuna industry,” the ministry said, adding that both ERA and the Fisheries Department had carried out several tests around the tuna cages.

“The investigation’s conclusions clearly show that various conditions outlined in the permit weren’t being respected by fish farm operators,” the ministry said.

This leaves us to ponder the extraordinary situation, whereby successive administrations of governments (both Labour and PN) have ignored or minimised damning conclusions about Malta’s tuna trade – or, in the latest instances, promised ‘consequences’ that never materialised.

It would be regrettable to have to conclude that this sector – which admittedly contributes handsomely to Malta’s GDP – is ‘too big’ to be in any way brought to book. This would be unacceptable at the best of times; but in this context, where the lack of proper enforcement can be seen to threaten Malta’s tourism industry, while causing untold damage to the marine environment – it would be too awful to even contemplate.

The environment minister therefore has a responsibility to see to it that his own words are translated into action. Otherwise, he would be graphically confirming the popular perception, that Malta’s institutionalised authorities are only ever ‘strong with the weak’, while remaining perpetually ‘weak with the strong’.

The responsibility assumes added significance against the backdrop of a State visit by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to Japan: where most of Malta’s fattened tuna is exported. Surely it should be of concern to Muscat, that this visit coincided with his own environment minister’s stark admission that ‘fish farm operators needed to abide by the conditions of their permit’ and that “it was unacceptable that any condition is not respected”.

Indeed it is unacceptable; yet it also a situation that Maltese governments have tolerated for far too long. If yet another summer goes by without any action to bring those farms in line with their permit conditions – and above all, if more future summers are ruined by this ongoing, seemingly unsolvable environmental problem – it would be a public admission that the entire country has its priorities clearly muddled.

The next step should by now be clear: we have experienced the ‘slime’, but not the ‘punishment’. Now, more than ever, is the time for proper, definitive law-enforcement.