The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

Report confirms sea sludge is coming from fish farms; government promises ‘swift’ action

Neil Camilleri Tuesday, 30 August 2016, 18:56 Last update: about 6 years ago

A report commissioned by the Environment Ministry found that the now infamous sea sludge is, more often than not coming from fish farms. It also found that four out of six fish farms in Malta, all of which operate tuna pens, have some form of infringement, Environment Minister Jose Herrera said.

Dr Herrera said some of the companies have more cages than they are allowed and others have bigger or deeper cages than what is stipulated in their permits. Some are farming types of fish they are not allowed to breed. Some are also using a type of feeding method that is leading to the slime often seen around popular bays.

It was explained that frozen fish is being let to defrost inside the cages, releasing fish oil which turns into foam when it reaches the coast.

“This situation is unacceptable and I will not permit any environmental damage or compromise to people’s health,” Dr Herrera insisted.

The Environment Minister said several enforcement notices had been issued in 2014 but the operators had appealed. These cases will now be heard urgently. The Planning Authority is also considering using new powers and issuing Emergency Enforcement Orders, which cannot be appealed. To do so it had to first get the ‘stamp of approval’ from the ERA, confirming an imminent environmental threat. This should be done in the next few days, Dr Herrera said, pointing out that he cannot actually order the authorities around but is limited to giving them direction.

The government, he said, is also working on a draft legal notice that will pave the way for regulation of the unregulated sector. “We will stop abuse with any means possible,” he said.

Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes, who is responsible for fisheries, said the government raked in some €1.1 million in environmental tax from the sector last year. That sum is expected to rise to €2 million this year, which shows the sector’s expansion. “We need to take other steps – new regulations to give greater regulatory powers to the aquaculture department.  It will also be given the necessary resources and these will be paid for by the operators.”

Parliamentary Secretary for Planning Deborah Schembri said many had been affected by this form of pollution. Aerial pictures taken recently showed that the fish oil slicks emanating from the farms could cover huge areas.

“The PA is considering using Emergency Enforcement Orders to safeguard the environment. The authority could also revoke the permits of tuna farms if they fail to adhere to the rules. There is a clause in the law which can be used to this effect.”

Dr Schembri said the government is also in the process of increasing the daily enforcement fines, which will serve as a greater deterrent. The current highest fee is €50 per day up to a total of €50,000. The amount can be increased to €2,000 a day up to €200,000.

ERA CEO Ruben Abela said the feeding systems would be regulated under new rules.

PA chief Johann Buttigieg said the authority will not shy away from taking direct action, if needed. “That could include removing the pens, killing the fish or setting them free.”

Dr Herrera insisted that criticism that the government was doing nothing to sort out the situation was unfair since the authorities have been working on these measures for more than a year. “We needed to take stock of the situation, confirm the source of the pollution and decide what action to take.”

When journalists pointed out that the summer will be all but over by the time these measures come into force, Dr Herrera insisted that he cannot just order the Armed Forces to tow the tuna pens away. “We have to act within the law,” he insisted.

“I can assure you that the ERA and the PA are working swiftly and will be in a position to issue these emergency enforcement orders within days.”

Dr Herrera said it would be a “mortal sin” to allow fish farms to pollute when Malta’s beaches have just been voted second cleanest in the Med and are a major selling point for the tourism industry. 

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