In the past months fish farm slime entered Malta’s beaches like an unwelcome guest. Whether one was at the beach or on Facebook, chances were that certain images of slime remained ingrained in one’s mind. Consequently, many people became conscious of the negative environmental impacts of fish farms.

The storm over Malta a few days ago made a further contribution to the placing of slime in our collective consciousness. Photos of slime at the Portomaso marina hit the social media waves. This time around, the victims of slime were not swimmers but owners of expensive boats.

It was as if nature were getting its back on Malta for all our environmental sins. And the governance deficit on fish farms needs much redemption.

Curiously, fish farms never made it to the pinnacle of environmental politics in Malta. Yet, since the 1990s, when the industry took off, there were some voices which warned about its environmental impacts.

Some have also warned about the social impacts of this industry, particularly with regard to the traditional form of artisan fishing and related practices carried out by small-scale fishermen.

Let’s put things into context. In the field of bluefin tuna ranching, Malta happens to be a global giant in terms of exports. Millions of euros worth of this fish are exported to Japan for sushi purposes.  When it comes to matters such as fishing quotas, Malta is bound by agreements within the EU and the ICCAT, the inter-governmental fishing organisation.

At the same time, however, the country’s lack of policy experience, as well as consistent state support have helped create a huge industry operating amid regulatory contradictions.

Interestingly, after Malta joined the EU it became increasingly visible to the eyes of transnational environmental NGOs active in the field. For example, a decade ago, organisations such as Greenpeace and WWF called for the banning of bluefin tuna fishing until stocks recover.

The governance deficit on fish farms needs much redemption

Some Maltese ENGOs and Greens did speak on this issue, but it was never given primacy over other more ‘visible’ environmental issues such as overdevelopment and the hunting of birds.

During that period, a report by Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies had criticised Malta for underreporting tuna catches. Other Mediterranean countries were also criticised for cumulatively overfishing this species.

When European and global negotiations on the matter were taking place, the Maltese government firmly supported the interests of the industry, despite warnings about environmental impacts by scientists and environmentalists.

For example, between 2008 and 2009, the Maltese government lobbied hard against a European Commission proposal to lower fishing quotas for bluefin tuna. The European Commission itself was split on the matter. Environment commissioner Stavros Dimas was reportedly supporting a ban on bluefin tuna fishing, while (Maltese) fishing commissioner Joe Borg argued for a ‘balance’ between scientific advice and industry interests.

Initially, the European Commission was in favour of a compromise deal to enlist bluefin tuna as an endangered species. The majority of EU member states disagreed with the European Commission’s proposals, and Borg eventually said that it was up to ICCAT to be responsible for the recovery ofthe species.

ICCAT eventually decided to reduce tuna catches and to introduce stricter regulations. The Fisheries commissioner, the tuna industry in Malta and fishermen welcomed the decision, while environmentalists opposed it on the grounds that it was unsustainable.

As years went by, bluefin tuna cages flourished around the Maltese islands. They also featured at least twice in world news. First when migrants were captured on film dangling on cages to avoid drowning, and second when Sea Shepherd activists liberated tuna from cages.

A change in administration in 2013 did not change things in terms of state support of the bluefin tuna industry.

Yet the slime phenomenon this year made the issue highly visible to the Maltese public, thus forcing the government to do something.

Whether the government will really live up to its words on enforcement has to be seen, yet the bluefin tuna issue has impacts and ramifications which go beyond the slime in our beaches.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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