Our local fishing industry and the strength of our marine biodiversity are not two contrasting values. On the contrary, they’re essential counterparts of the same coin.

As we head to the seas during these summer holidays, escaping these scorching hot temperatures, we must all do our part in preserving the livelihood of the hundreds of people involved in the fishing industry, for their sake as well as our own.

It is only if we preserve the sustainability of our marine ecology that the local marine economy remains sustainable.

Having said that, even the fishing industry is now facing an environmental reckoning of its own. The phenomenon of ghost fishing, while not yet well-known outside the fishing industry, is quickly establishing itself as one of the more pertinent threats to our marine ecology today.

The loss of fishing gear is not an uncommon occurrence.

The World Animal Protection Organisation estimates that no less than 600,000 tons of fishing gear are left at sea every year. Often, such a loss occurs when the nets cast encounter uneven rocks on the seabed or other man-made structures lost at sea.

As a result, latest studies have shown that hundreds of thousands of fish and sea mammals are lost to this phenomenon every year. The numbers, grim as they are, will only continue to grow exponentially in future years unless concrete steps are taken to address this issue.

Climate change, together with the loss of natural habitat that occurs as a direct result, remains a significant and persistent threat to our marine biodiversity. And, yet, the loss or illegal disposal of fishing nets in the sea makes protecting our seabed an even more arduous task.

Ghost fishing is a sensitive issue for our country that cannot remain unaddressed for too long. Once lost, this abandoned fishing gear remains an unintended impediment for the free movement of all aquatic life.

Furthermore, the synthetic material used in most of this equipment stays active in our seas for hundreds of years, littering our oceans and wreaking havoc on the marine ecosystem.

Loss or illegal disposal of fishing nets in the sea makes protecting our seabed a more arduous task- Alicia Bugeja Said

While studies have been conducted on the use of biodegradable fishing nets, their applicability is very limited in scope and in use. While the introduction of more eco-friendly material in fishing is ramping up, time is not on our side.

Clean-up efforts have been few and far between. This is mostly due to the logistical impediments intertwined with conducting such an operation. The other week, I attended such a clean-up, organised by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, together with NGO Żibel.

A 479-kilogram fishing net, sitting on the seabed for nearly three decades, had sunk near Comino and was seemingly lost for ever, until it was finally brought into the surface and disposed of. This initiative, while commendable, must not remain a one-off.

For this reason, the same department has recently announced a new initiative, which will actively engage with local fishermen who report losing any fishing equipment while fishing in Maltese waters.

The use of the newly established freephone by local fishermen will not only help the department to keep tabs on the actual amount of fishing gear lost but will actively work with NGOs, and other public entities, in ensuring that the damage done by this fishing gear on the seabed will be reduced and minimised accordingly.

This initiative is only one that this government is pursuing. Incentives such as the recycling of old fishing gear will prevent them being dumped in our seas. The use of upcycled ghost nets into stylish jewellery, a project spearheaded by Heritage Malta, ought to be lauded and congratulated.

The role of fishermen, public entities and NGO’s such as Żibel is instrumental in ensuring that the Maltese marine ecosystem remains protected.

It is the duty of each and every one of us to see to it that this generational heritage is preserved, in its pristine condition, for future generations.

Alicia Bugeja Said is Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Animal Rights. She has as a PhD in Anthropology and Conservation from the University of Kent, with her expertise focusing predominantly on marine and fisheries governance.

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