Updated 5.29pm - Added PN statement

The Planning Authority has put off a decision to revoke 10 permits issued to fish farms, giving operators until September 22 to propose methods for the relocation of their cages.

The decision was taken after operators warned at a public meeting of the Planning Board that revoking permits for extensions made to their operations could spell the death knell for an industry, which accounts for 1.5 per cent of GDP.

They said that revocation of the permits would cost the industry €150 million.  

In a tweet, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he was "very disappointed" by the PA's course of action. 

"Industry had years to comply," Dr Muscat wrote, saying that the PA had "failed to decide" after the government had acted.

The Nationalist Party dismissed Dr Muscat's position, saying he was trying to curry favour after "the bad environmental decisions he and his government have made." 

In a statement, the party argued that it was "common sense" to give operators an extra two weeks to draft plans on how to move further offshore and respect environmental standards. 

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said the decision was "fair enough" and the onus was now on the industry to prove that it could meet proper environmental standards. Workers, he said, must surely be relieved. 

Dr Busuttil's tweet prompted the Labour Party to accuse him of being part of "the elite", and siding with operators to the detriment of the broader population. 

Fish farms hit the headlines this summer as they were blamed for slime which contaminated many of Malta's beaches.

During presentations by the operators, the meeting heard that the slime found on Malta's beaches was the result of a mistake which saw the fish farms using feed that had 30 per cent more fat content than in the past.

"This caught the whole industry by surprise," lawyer John Refalo said.

He said he was not downplaying the inconvenience cause, but the damage was not irredeemable. The operators, he said, stopped using the feed as soon as the consequences became known.

The operators urged the authority to delay and reconsider its decisions, pointing out that they had met yesterday's deadline to present a method statement to correct irregularities noted by the authority last month.

They also questioned whether the authority's actions were correct and called for time in order to relocate the cages. They said they would bind themselves to relocate their cages by June 2017, when the new season starts.

The board's chairman said the PA was acting quickly because of the contamination caused to Malta's beaches.

The Planning Board was discussing the revocation of permits on the basis that permit conditions had been breached, with several farms having more cages than permitted, or occupying different locations.

The permits had included a condition which prohibited 'work practices resulting in undesirable environmental impact." The Enforcement Directorate is arguing that the slime was a breach of this condition.

Victor Axiak, chairman of the Environment Resources Authority, said the operators had since 2005 to relocate the cages but chose to stay put for economic reasons.

"Slime is merely the tip of the iceberg. Tuna farms have very specific environmental impacts which will only be addressed through relocation. These justifications should have come earlier, operators should have valued environmental considerations as much as economic ones," he said. 

Ryan Callus, representing the PN said it was clear that permit conditions had not been observed and the current situation was not sustainable. However, revoking the permits would raise questions on what would happen next. This would be an extreme decision which would see the entire industry operating illegally, he said. 

Revocations were considered for: several marine cages in Marsaxlokk; the setting up of a tuna penning site in Ħofra iz-Zgħira in Marsaxlokk; an extension of a tuna penning site and operations at the same site; to move the entire operation of a fish farm further offshore by some 700m at Xrobb l-Għaġin, Marsaxlokk; tuna penning in cages and operations on land at Sikka l-Bajda off St Paul’s Bay; extension of tuna farm at Sikka l-Bajda and substitution of breeding of sea bream with tuna on a site in the Comino Channel.

In its decision at the end of the meeting, the board said it would give the operators up to September 22 to come up with method statements to address the breaches of the conditions and elocation of the cages. Agreement has to be reached with PA, the Fisheries Department and the Environment and Resources Authroity.

The PA may impose a bank guarantee to ensure compliance. Revocation of permits remained a possibility.   

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