Something fishy in the fisheries department

Simply put, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is too understaffed and under-equipped to meet the basic requirements of its role. As a result, a substantial percentage of Maltese fishing vessels are operating without any regular supervision at all. 

Last week, the Auditor General published a report focusing on how the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) carries out its inspectorate functions.

In its report, the AG’s office found that “the vast majority of Malta’s fishing fleet” was not equipped with tracking devices such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), Vessel Monitoring system (VMS), and the General Pocket Radio Service (GPRS): all devices which are installed on vessels (depending on size) licensed to fish for protected species.

The audit found that 196 of Malta’s 376 vessels registered as professional vessels, and 507 out 545 registered as part-time vessels, do not have any traffic system whatsoever. This in addition to some 2,012 vessels registered as recreational fishing vessels, which also do not possess any form of tracking system.

The audit concluded that the “DFA has practically no means by which to remotely monitor the movements of a very large portion of the local fishing fleet”.

This is worrying for a number of reasons. The DFA’s primary purpose is to ensure the sustainability of fish species in the seas, and to address the requirements in the fisheries sector – two considerations which, for obvious reasons, go hand in glove.

Though the impact of Malta’s fisheries on the marine ecology is limited – at least, compared to those of other Mediterranean countries – overfishing remains a primary cause of depletion of fish-stocks worldwide. The Mediterranean is no exception, and among the species regularly caught and traded by Maltese vessels are some – including Swordfish and the Bluefin tuna – that are listed as possibly endangered.

Some years back, Malta adopted a national strategy for the sustainability of the aquaculture sector; and as an EU member state, we are expected to abide by the European Commission’s fisheries strategy (drawn up by Maltese Commissioner Joe Borg, no less).

Both these commitments require careful monitoring and supervision of Malta-registered fishing vessels. The AG’s findings suggest that this is not happening; and, more worryingly, that it cannot happen for a number of reasons.

Apart from a lack of data and equipment, the Auditor General also noted that a recurrent concern raised by the DFA related to a shortage of staff. The audit found that in August 2018, the department had 64 vacant positions and a total staff complement of 119.

Moreover, the DFA is expected to carry out physical inspections of its own; but the NAO said the DFA’s own asset had been largely non-operational due to technical problems. Only six inspections targeting six vessels were carried out in 2017, and a single inspection on one vessel was conducted at sea between January and June 2018.

Simply put, the DFA is too understaffed and under-equipped to meet the basic requirements of its role. As a result, a substantial percentage of Maltese fishing vessels are operating without any regular supervision at all. This can only result in added pressure on threatened fish-stocks, which in turn may threaten the long-term sustainability of the sector as a whole.

It is comforting to know that Maltese fishermen are themselves concerned with the situation; and it is only fair to also point out that not all fishermen will succumb to the allure of illegal fishing (though the financial rewards are undeniably large: Blue-fin tuna, in particular, fetches extremely high prices on the Japanese market).

But we cannot rely only on the honesty and integrity of the Maltese fisherman. The DFA has a job to do, and failure to perform that function could have catastrophic future consequences.

There is, however, another reason to be alarmed. Fishermen who spoke to MaltaToday also voiced concerns about smuggling by owners of fishing vessels. In recent years, a number of registered fishing vessels have been detained by local and Libyan authorities over their involvement in smuggling operations and links to Libyan and Italian smugglers. The fact that several car bomb victims have been registered fishermen has also suggested a turf war between different smuggling groups operating in Malta.

Yet fishermen also suggested that the DFA, despite being aware of illegal activities taking place, was not doing all that it could to stem such operations, to the extent that it could even be considered to be aiding and abetting such practices. They said that operators with the necessary political or DFA contacts could get away with a lot more than most fishermen.

These are damning allegations, over and above any logistical/operational difficulties the DFA may have in fulfilling its remit. Clearly, there are institutional flaws to be addressed: the department is altogether too close to the corridors of power to be effective.

One possible solution would be to remove the DFA from its position within the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry, and re-constitute it as an autonomous authority, answerable to Parliament.

As an authority, it will have independence and clout to employ inspectors, build a credible IT infrastructure, and attract qualified candidates for employment. But as long as it remains a government department, it will always be hampered in enforcing regulations.

And the longer it takes to free this important department from its current shackles, the greater the long-term damage to the fisheries sector, and to marine wildlife in general.