Fish is a popular food in Malta. It is an important part of our diet and culture. Fresh and frozen fish is sold in markets, fish shops and supermarkets. But how sustainable are our practices?
Fish quotas regulate fishing of certain species of fish. These catch limits are expressed in tons or numbers. When the catch limits for a fish are reached, the season closes, prohibiting further fishing for that type of fish.
The NGO Fish4tomorrow was formed in 2010. It aims to raise local awareness on the importance of seafood from sustainable sources. When interviewed about sustainability of local fishing practices, Fish4tomorrow spokesman J D Farrugia said that whereas in previous years there used to be an abundance of fish, nowadays the Maltese waters are void. Fish such as grouper, white sea bream, red snapper, red scorpionfish, dentex and the common pandora have practically vanished from the fish market. If one finds them, they sell at high prices and may be imported.
Farrugia explained that small-scale artisanal fishers using lines with hooks (konzijiet) have little impact on the fish populations they catch and the surrounding environment. However, large fishing operations such as bottom trawling have negative effects on fish stocks, the environment and also other species that they are not targeting, such as sharks, dolphins and turtles. They catch fish in such high quantities that practically no fish are left to breed in the area, thus the shoal cannot regenerate.
Tuna is being ranched locally. Young tuna individuals entering the Mediterranean Sea are caught before they spawn, taken to tuna pens, fattened, grown and exported. The tuna do not reproduce in captivity, thus it is killed before it reproduces.
Moreover tons of mackerel are used to feed tuna (25 kilograms of mackerel is needed to produce one kilogram of tuna). All these factors make tuna unsustainable.
Another detrimental factor is the large amounts of traps and nets abandoned at sea. Fish get trapped and they attract predators, which in turn get caught. This is referred to as ghost fishing.
When asked about the level of awareness of Maltese fishermen, Farrugia said that many traditional fishers were aware of the importance of fishing in ways which do not harm the environment. The government ran a campaign on sustainable fishing a few years ago. But in another interview, a full-time and a part-time fisherman both said that while they were advised on issues such as health and safety and diversification, they were not trained in sustainable fishing techniques. They claimed that the officials themselves did not know the way forward and there is not a team of officials and that officials change frequently.
Whereas in previous years there used to be an abundance of fish, nowadays the Maltese waters are void
The full-time fisherman said the trade is no longer viable and if the government were to introduce the decommissioning scheme, most fishermen would go for it. He explained that if a fish is not easily available, he cannot diversify because there are restrictions.
As regards consumers, Farrugia said that there is a need for more awareness. The NGO has created tools such as the Quickfish Guide to help consumers make responsible choices that ensure the viability of local fish stocks for future generations. Fish4tomorrow also organises awareness-raising events such as pop-up dinners called From Our Sea. Here, people book places to the event and a chef prepares a tasty menu of local, seasonal and sustainable seafood. In this way, consumers can see that sustainable seafood such as bogue (vopi) or Atlantic mackerel (kavall) are actually very tasty as well as caught in an environmentally-responsible manner.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organisation. Its goal is to end overfishing and to ensure that this and future generations can continue to enjoy wild seafood. It urges people to choose certified sustainable seafood with the blue fish label. The ecolabel is only applied to wild fish or seafood from fisheries that have been certified by the MSC as sustainable. Sustainable fishing means leaving enough fish in the ocean, respecting habitats and ensuring people who depend on fishing can maintain their livelihoods.
A survey was carried out to assess the level of awareness of Maltese consumers about the MSC label. Data was collected from 30 consumers. The results were as follows:
• 87 per cent of the consumers interviewed recognised that the label was related to fish.
• Only 13 per cent of the consumers knew that this label is related to sustainable fishing.
• 30 per cent of the consumers had an idea of what sustainable fishing is. They described it as “controlled fishing”, “releasing small fish”, “not exceeding the quotas”, and “catching fish in the right season”.
• 55 per cent had heard the phrase, but did not know what it meant.
• 15 per cent had never heard about sustainable fishing.
Visits to popular fisheries and a fish market showed that none of the locally caught fish displayed the MSC label. A survey of products in a major supermarket in the Sliema/St Julian’s area showed that 90 per cent of the imported frozen fish had the MSC label. On the other hand, only 25 per cent of the imported frozen fish in a small grocery store had the MSC label. In all cases, none of the locally packed fish had the MSC label.
It is important to stop the exploitation of popular fish, such as steak fish. Currently a lot of fish is not eaten because there is not enough promotion for this kind of fish even though it is very cheap, highly sustainable and quite good. Horse Mackerel (sawrell), Frigate Mackerel (tumbrell), Pompano (strilja) and Atlantic Bonito (plamtu) are available, tasty and easy to prepare.
It is important to keep fish consumption high while giving the consumer a wider and more sustainable choice. Consumers can be educated through various means such as TV programmes, activities through local councils or those held in fishing villages. Leaflets and posters promoting consumption of sustainable fish can be displayed in fish shops.
It is important to save fish stocks, the ecosystems and at the same time safeguard the livelihood of people who depend on fishing. Moreover local traditions and culture related to fishing must be preserved.
Gabriel Pullicino, 12, is a Year 8 student at St Augustine College. This article was submitted as part of the Young Reporters for the Environment programme. To view other students’ entries, visit www.yremalta.org.
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