The Malta Independent 18 March 2019, Monday

FIRST: Fishing in the dark, consuming in the dark

Joanna Demarco Tuesday, 17 April 2018, 09:36 Last update: about 12 months ago

In the light of International Mother Earth Day on 22 April, First takes a closer look at small-scale fishing in Malta by speaking to documentary photographer Gilbert Calleja about his project ‘Lampara’, and environmental activist from fish4tomorrow JD Farrugia

It is well-known that small-scale fisheries in Malta are experiencing an ever-challenging struggle to survive as time goes by: fighting the backlash of the industrial boom on the part of large-scale fisheries.

Fuelled by his fascination with our relationship to the sea, Maltese documentary photographer Gilbert Calleja found himself delving into the subject of small-scale fisheries when he met Antoine Abela, the owner and captain of the boat Joan of Arc in Marsaxlokk. Experiencing and photographing life on Joan of Arc slowly developed into a body of work called Lampara, an ongoing personal documentary project on which Calleja has now been working for about five years.


He began taking photographs about 18 years ago, and was immediately taken with the medium - not only as a way of image-making but also as a way of meeting people. He says it was this social aspect that drew him into long-term documentary work and he believes that this human dimension is "extremely important" in his work. "The challenge is not taking beautiful pictures," he says. "The real challenge is to be able to put your camera to one side and take time to observe, listen, learn and develop sensitivity to an environment in which you, as a photographer, are an alien." Through this project, he has had the chance to witness the work of a small-scale fishery in this day and age, from an up-close and personal view, as an outsider.

"The more I learnt about the boat's history, the family's relationships, the crew, etc., the more engaged I became," said Calleja. The setting in which the trade is practiced - in the darkest hours, at sea: miles upon miles illuminated by little more than moonlight - also creates an interesting yet challenging canvas for a photographer. "I was seduced by the challenge of working in almost complete darkness," he said, listing the sea itself as another factor that he found aesthetically engaging.

In fact, darkness is as significant to the project as it is to the trade. 'Lampara', an old method of fishing in the dark, is practiced during the summer months and Antoine Abela's family of fishermen has been using this method for more than 50 years.


Breaking the picture-postcard imager of fishermen

Gilbert Calleja is currently pursuing a practice-based PhD in Creative Media at the University of Westminster, where his Lampara work is the focus of his studies. "I am exploring new documentary formats and hoping to give more of a complete understanding of the lives of fishermen, which goes beyond the stereotyped image you see in postcards and tourist brochures," he said.

In breaking these picture-perfect tourist brochure depictions, Calleja mentioned the struggles that small-scale fishermen currently face in trying to adapt to a world "in which all the odds seem to be stacked against them.

"A fisherman's life is undoubtedly one of hardship, with limited financial return," he explained. "Very few young people want to spend their days and nights on-board a fishing boat doing back-breaking work, when they can find an 8 am to 5pm job on shore, get better pay and enjoy their friends and family at the weekends. This has made finding local crews very, very difficult."

Environmental activist J.D. Farrugia from eNGO fish4tomorrow - a group that is actively raising awareness on sustainable fishing and the sustainable consumption of fish on a local level - supports Calleja's opinion. He explained that large-scale industrial fishing operations have had a negative impact on both small-scale fishermen and fisheries in general, much like what happened with large scale agricultural industries.

"Industrial fishing, like anything else industrial, has a lobby. This means that they have a stronger pull and influence on policy-makers: you can afford to have people in Brussels pushing your cause, being supported by the EU to get bigger and richer," he argued.

According to Farrugia, small-scale fishing accounts for up to 90 per cent of fishing operations. "In terms of impact, this is much less but obviously still significant, and it still needs to be regulated with quotas, etc. By nature, however, most [small-scale fishing operations] are very environmentally conscious and we have spoken to small-scale fishermen who say their goals are long-term - not short-term profit. There is an awareness of sustainability and preserving fish stocks, so as an NGO we tend to promote fish caught by small-scale fishing operations."


So how does this affect the communities and families of the fishermen?

"Fishing communities and families are no different from other communities in terms of experiencing changes," said Calleja who, in recent years, has been researching the subject thoroughly. "Everyone is living in specific times under specific conditions. Life changes and people, traditions, livelihoods and so on, change, adapt or die out. However, what we need to ask ourselves is not whether we can 'preserve' the old traditions but how we can develop the present local industry in a more sustainable way."

According to Farrugia, in order for sustainability to be maintained and to ensure healthy fish stocks for generations to come, continuous data collection and research of all fisheries (small and industrial) is vital.


Consumers kept in the dark

Undoubtedly, in order for sustainability to be maintained, it is not only the fisheries which need to be under the spotlight but also the general public as consumers. "Are consumers sufficiently educated about the fish they are putting on the table?" Calleja asks, providing food for thought. "How many different types of fish can the average Maltese teenager identify? What are the health benefits of cooking and eating certain types of fish such as mackerel or sardines? How are the fish best cooked?"

Although varied, the implications of such questions are linked. It is necessary to understand that education, eating preferences, health regimes and cooking habits all have an impact on small-scale fishermen.

In many ways, Farrugia believes that consumers are kept in the dark about what they are eating. He points to the lack of clarity about the fish we are buying as a common factor that consumers come across in Malta.

"This could be because the wrong names are used and living in a bilingual country makes this even trickier. Most of the time there's a lack of information about where the fish was caught, how it was caught or even how fresh it is," he said. "A lot of this could be resolved through the use of appropriate labelling, which is actually an EU requirement."


What can we do?

"Did you know that swordfish (pixxispad), bluefin tuna and dusky grouper (ċerna) are three fish which are heavily threatened in the Mediterranean? Why not substitute them for Atlantic mackerel (kavall), bogue (vopi) and saddled seabream (kaħli)? The latter are extremely tasty, sustainable and generally affordable.  

"As with many things, education and making small yet significant adjustments in your daily life is key. In this day and age, there is no room for the 'one person won't make a difference' mentality."

Fish4tomorrow is working hard to provide people with the information they need to make sustainable choices when eating seafood. Throughout the year they organise campaigns and activities in which members of the public can engage. Their pocket-size guide on sustainable local fish may be just what you need to change your choice of seafood to ones that are more sustainable.


Visit for more information and check out Gilbert Calleja's work at



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