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Network News • 27-07-2023

The million-dollar tuna ranching sector

Author: Lina Klesper - Legal Assistant at PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 27 July 2023

The million-dollar tuna ranching and fattening industry has long been a prominent player in Malta, generating substantial revenue through the export of tuna to Japan. However, public opinion on the operation of this indigenous industry in our open seas, has been connected to causing contamination of local beaches and the seabed, leading to environmental harm and user conflicts in the coastal zones. Naturally, the four main ranching companies strongly resist such accusations. It is an understatement to comment how political patronage is enjoyed by the sector.

The tuna ranching and fattening industry's practices have been accused (particularly in summer) to have wreaked havoc on the delicate ecosystems of coastal areas.  Reports indicate that those coastal areas and the seabed close to the fish pens, once thriving with diverse marine life, are now marred by contamination.  A pressing matter that could be connected to the fish farming industry is that the once-abundant population of sea urchins (rizzi), vital for maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem, has dwindled to the point of near extinction.

No scientific studies have been released to discover what was the cause of sea urchin extinction. The authorities woke up late to this marine disaster and this month urchins been protected by a two-year moratorium on their collection in Maltese waters.  To replenish the sea population within two years, a restocking program has been launched, involving the cultivation of sea urchins at San Luċjan and their subsequent release into the sea.

It could be that the rizzi are not only endangered by popular demand from gourmets and the lucrative business in the global trade but also by ecological imbalances allegedly caused by extensive fish farming. Due to insufficient clean-ups of the area under the cages, the benthic environment gets disturbed by organic matter from decaying baitfish, which causes stress and limited survival rates for the epifauna including sea urchins in those areas with organic material enriched sediment. Luckily, it seems that the tuna penning sites do not have a negative impact on the Posidonia oceanica meadows since the farms are located at depths of 80 metres above sandy bottoms where Posidonia does not grow.  Further research is needed to grasp the impact of tuna penning operations on the adjacent marine ecosystems.

Predominant in the controversy around the tuna penning operations is the slime that plagues Malta´s coastal regions disturbing the public in popular recreational areas. Beaches as well as bathing bays have become plagued by an unsightly and unhealthy slime deterring the public from enjoying the once pristine waters. The tedious sea slime derives from excess baitfish feed, fish mucus and frozen blocks of baitfish left to thaw in the cages at sea containing a slick of protein and fat.

Even though the slime is of natural origin and is biodegradable, it will cause poor surface water quality during feeding and unpleasant nuisances on Malta´s coast for the duration of two weeks. This unfortunate consequence of the tuna ranching industry poses a significant threat to the tourism industry and the overall appeal of coastal regions. Even though measures are in place to prevent any leakage of slime by trained employees collecting and capturing any uncaptured slime by keeping all marine installations clean and using high-quality baitfish, sadly, malpractice stays a recurring issue.

Despite the environmental havoc caused domestically, the tuna ranching industry continues to flourish due to its lucrative export market in Japan. The high demand for high-quality Atlantic bluefin tuna in Japan, driven by cultural and culinary preferences, especially in the sushi-sashimi market, has created a profitable opportunity for this industry.  Maltese tuna enjoys a formidable reputation in Japan and stands for good quality.

Malta is the top producer of bluefin tuna in the European Union generating over €200 million in 2021 after an almost 15% increase in quotas.  It is safe to say that aquaculture makes up a significant contribution to the Maltese economy.  Hence, no wonder that PMC issued last year for economic activities within Malta´s Exclusive Economic Zone explicitly list fisheries and aquaculture projects besides currently widely discussed renewable energy projects.

One of the most clandestine aspects of the tuna ranching industry is its deep-rooted connection with ruling top politicians. This close affiliation has raised eyebrows, prompting speculation about the role of political patronage in facilitating the industry's operations. With ruling politicians backing the industry, questions arise about whether the welfare of the environment and local communities is genuinely prioritized.

It would be no surprise if more aquacultural farms were to appear in planning the use of Malta´s EEZ.  Just in the beginning of this year, the Qala local council has expressed its concerns over a planned private tuna farm in the new proposed North Aquaculture Zone off Malta´s north coast. The Gozitan coast and Blue Lagoon could be affected daily by oil slicks potentially as large as 10 metres cubes.

According to the ERA Environment Impact Assessment for the new aquaculture zone, 9 tonnes of fish oil could be released daily from 34 planned cages. Even though methods to mitigate the release of fish oil from the pens are introduced by tuna operators, particularly during rough sea conditions, they are never entirely efficient.  Hence, the new aquaculture project could spell serious trouble for tourism and Gozo´s local economy.

Recognising the urgent need to address the industry's harmful environmental practices, efforts have been made to reduce sea contamination and turn the industry more sustainable. Malta´s tuna federation pledges to follow the highest standards and sees sustainability as part of the industry itself.  F

or example, to render the lucrative tuna penning less harmful to the environment, now that ESG rules will be unleashed in Europe, Malta Enterprise awarded a factory to process fish offal and dead pieces, with the aim of producing fishmeal as fodder or fertilizer.

This shows efforts towards a more circular economic undertaking, where usually 25% of the fish was being wasted and dumped back into the sea. This waste is now being turned into fishmeal for pet foods and nutraceutical products at a relatively new and innovative facility at Ħal Far.

After heavy protests from villagers complaining about nuisance from odour caused by processing fish offal, action was taken by ranchers to tighten up on emissions during production.

While this initiative demonstrates a step in the right direction, concerns remain about the factory's emissions and the unpleasant odours they generate. Generally, the measures' effectiveness and long-term sustainability remain subjects of ongoing debate. It is crucial to address these issues and explore sustainable alternatives that protect the environment while maintaining economic viability.

In conclusion while return on investment is high for tuna ranchers, it pales in comparison with revenue from the tourist sector. Sadly, due to low quality bathing conditions this may directly reduce tourist attraction. The latter generates ten times more revenue to GDP.

Author: Lina Klesper - Legal Assistant at PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 27 July 2023
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