Plans by Azzopardi Fisheries to double the number of tuna cages at its offshore farm off Sikka l-Bajda were greenlit by the Planning Authority this week.

The additional cages – increasing from 12 to 24 – will not hold any more tuna but will, according to the operator, ensure that the fish have sufficient space to allow them to reach optimal size before harvesting, after an enforced relocation from St Paul’s Bay hit the quality of its stock.

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The farm was one of several moved offshore on the PA’s orders in 2017 after tuna farms were identified as the source of oily slime which plagued beaches and coastal areas.

The relocation was intended as a temporary, two-year measure until the approval of a designated aquaculture zone on the same site, but the Fisheries Department process is still ongoing.

The operators said that as a result of the relocation, stocking density in the permitted cages was double that of previous years, such that the tuna did not grow to full size due to excessive competition in a relatively small area.

The total biomass in the farm will remain within the legal limit of 3,300 tonnes.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) did not object to the application, which it said was unlikely to have significant residual impacts, but proposed a number of conditions to limit and contain contamination, and to protect the integrity of the surrounding Natura 2000 site.

Move will ensure fish have sufficient space

An Environmental Impact Assessment for the extension had suggested a number of mitigation measures to eliminate or reduce the amount of residue. These include carefully monitoring the feeding process and stopping as soon as, or just before, the fish are satiated.

The report also recommends regular checks – by an independent monitor – of the seabed below the tuna pens, which can suffer negative effects due to uneaten feed settling there.

Operators also independently announced earlier this year that they had introduced booms around their pens to collect the oily residue, alongside a variety of other mitigation measures aimed at preventing a recurrence of the slime outbreak.

The booms, meant to collect much of the residue at source, will work together with a skimmer-equipped boat assigned to each pen. Operators will also be setting up a call centre to receive complaints from members of the public and will be paying for two boats to patrol the coast and pick up marine litter wherever they find it.

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