Malta’s Merchant Shipping Act is currently celebrating its 50th year and the maritime community has good reason to celebrate. How did it all start? Who were the protagonists? What were the main hurdles which had to be overcome? These are the themes which the Malta Shipping Symposium sought to remind us at the 50th anniversary commemoration held last week.

Some of the most prominent individuals, who lived this era and who are still around to recall the details of leading events, were invited to share their experiences and to speak about the collective efforts to propel the development of Malta’s maritime flag and to turn it into a globally recognised flag of excellence.

One of these guests was none other than the first registrar general of shipping and seamen, Joseph Curmi, a venerable man, who with utmost humility had a lifetime of stories to share of a bygone era.

After collecting an award in honour of his significant contributions to the flag, I found myself standing near Curmi. With a nod of congratulations, I intimated (in stereotypical Maltese fashion), that he may have been acquainted with my maternal grandfather, Dr Joe Fenech.

Following a smile and audible exhale, Curmi explained that he knew Fenech more than most, as he enthusiastically reminisced on their numerous business trips to Greece back in the 1980s to attract Greek tonnage to Malta’s maritime flag − we would even share hotel rooms to cut costs, he laughed.

Fenech was not one to talk shop at home. At the time of his passing in 2005, I had known little of his achievements, other than the fact that, for the latter part of his political career, he was the parliamentary secretary responsible for offshore activities and maritime affairs and, later, minister of justice. He was also an eminent litigator and lawyer outside of politics, who had built the foundations of what, over time, has turned out to be a formidable legal practice – Fenech & Fenech Advocates.

My dialogue with Curmi was a reminder of the significant contributions made by Fenech and the long-lasting impact that his vision and contributions have had on Malta’s maritime and financial services industries, both of which he viewed as crucial in the post-Independence transformation of Malta into a modern European state.

In those early days, Malta’s maritime flag was not the reputable and successful flag as we know it today and Fenech was eager to understand the reason for this. He held meetings with international banks and other stakeholders and discovered that the central issues were threefold, namely that (i) facilities offered to shipowners had to increase, (ii) costs and unnecessary delays had to be minimised, and (iii) the status of the Maltese mortgage had to be strengthened in the interest of creditors.

After months of intense spadework mostly consisting of comparative legal studies, he oversaw the introduction of landmark amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act in 1988 and what were once deemed to be the main issues for the expansion and growth of the Malta Ship Registry became the foundations upon which the maritime industry as a whole began to flourish. It is widely acknowledged that it was these monumental amendments to our Merchant Shipping Act which propelled the Malta flag into the international maritime arena.

[Joe] Fenech is one of the many grandfathers of Malta’s development as a maritime nation

Only a few years later, he would also oversee, and was instrumental in setting up the Malta International Business Authority, which was the precursor of today’s Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) that introduced Malta to the world of financial services.

Fenech would also be instrumental in the establishment of the Malta Maritime Authority (MMA), an independent state corporation and government agency, responsible for the governance, operation, regulation and promotion of ports and merchant shipping in Malta. The MMA would be subsequently absorbed by Transport Malta in 2010 although the benefits of the original MMA are now being revisited with a view to possibly re-establishing the authority as it once was.  

During this period, Lino Vassallo, a top civil servant in Fenech’s secretariat, would become the registrar general of shipping and seamen, and would oversee the first major strides in attracting significant tonnage to the Malta flag. In a conversation with Vassallo, Fenech was described as the main “driver” and “dynamo”, whose efforts were key to literally transforming Malta’s Shipping Register and forging important relations with the international maritime community.

As we stood on the roof terrace of the Mediterranean Conference Centre, the venue for the symposium, which overlooks a magnificent view of Grand Harbour, I was reminded of all of Fenech’s other achievements, many of which went beyond those revolutionary amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act.

One of these being the commissioning and upgrading of the cruise-liner terminal, no more than 500m away, which he vigorously spearheaded and which today welcomes just under one million passengers to Malta aboard almost 400 cruise liner annual calls in Grand Harbour.

Prior to the initiation of that project, I am told he had travelled to Miami on numerous occasions to gain valuable insight into cruise-port operations, and simultaneously obtained a level of technical understanding which was necessary to oversee the development of the required infrastructure. Although he had an enthusiastic vision for the cruise liner industry, I do wonder whether he had ever envisaged that his indefatigable efforts would one day be the catalyst for the successful cruise-liner industry which Malta is currently experiencing.

He also had an acute vision for the yachting industry and understood the potential for Malta to become a yachting hub. One of his early accomplishments included the development of the yacht marina of an international standard in Msida creek, which was the precursor of other yacht marinas which would follow in Ta’ Xbiex, Birgu, Kalkara, Portomaso, Valletta, and Mġarr in Gozo. 

Today, Malta’s yacht marinas are a home port or port of call to some of the largest and most iconic superyachts on the market, while the country’s ship registry has become the largest superyacht register in the world. Again, this success has contributed to the expansion of the Malta Ship Registry and has simultaneously incentivised the development of further comprehensive maritime services beyond the confines of yacht registration and berthing, which have ventured into logistics, bunkering, ship repair and refit services, among others.

In the field of education, his foresight and initiative also lead to the establishment of the International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI) under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Today, IMLI commands a dominant position as a renowned centre for maritime legal studies. It has cultivated some of the leading maritime lawyers of our generation, and over 1,000 alumni in over 146 countries have walked in and out of IMLI’s doors.

Fenech is one of the many grandfathers of Malta’s development as a maritime nation. Like Curmi and Vassallo and so many others that came before and after them, their contributions have been significant and made without fanfare. May we continue to build upon this golden legacy with the same humility, pragmatism and enthusiasm, with a view to further enhance Malta’s position as a centre of maritime excellence in the years to come.

Peter Grima is a senior associate within the Ship Finance department at Fenech & Fenech Advocates.

* Also in the photo are the late IMO secretary-general C.P. Srivastava (second from right), the late John Manduca (left), then High Commissioner in London, and David Attard (right), outgoing director of IMLI and a sitting judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

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