The Malta Independent 20 August 2019, Tuesday

Application to increase number of fish farm cages at Sikka l-Bajda to be decided Thursday

Kevin Schembri Orland Wednesday, 13 February 2019, 10:48 Last update: about 7 months ago

A controversial application to increase the number of tuna cages for an operator from 12 to 24 just off Sikka l-Bajda is set to be decided this Thursday by the Planning Authority Board.

The site is off Sikka l-Bajda, St Paul’s Bay.

According to the Case officer’s report, the proposal “ensures that the existing cage space is improved to optimally support the tuna quota,” the Case Officer’s report reads.

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Currently, the tuna penning operations in the North consists of two installations of six cages each located in close proximity to each other and utilising the same area of sea.

“Some of the moorings are also common to the farms such that the entire operation of 12 cages effectively functions as one farm. The proposal consists of the addition in number of cages of an existing tuna farm operation from 12 to 24 cages. This proposal ensures that the existing cage space is improved to optimally support the tuna quota. This site is a temporary solution until the new north Aquaculture Zone being planned by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is set up”.

The case officer states that the proposed site will reduce the concentration of aquaculture activities in inshore waters by relocating potential polluting activities and reducing the conflicts with other maritime and tourist areas.

The site is located East of, and approximately 5km away from the headland at Dahlet ix- Xilep and approximately 5.41km from the nearest headland at il- Ponta tal – Qawra. This proposal will be located adjacent to and on the inshore side of the existing cages. Thus, the proposal is located approximately 4.5 km from the headland at Dahlet ix- Xilep and approximately 4.8km from the nearest headland at il- Ponta tal-Qawra, the case officer’s report reads. This means that it would be closer to land.

The case officer’s report read: “During screening, the Armed Forces of Malta noted that the proposed coordinates fall inside the AFM Pembroke Range safety area. Pembroke range is a live firing shooting range, and the relocation or shifting of the range area is not possible in view of the orientation of the range and its related safety parameters. In view of this the cages and the outer limits must be shifted outside the AFM danger area for safety reasons. During full application assessment, AFM was consulted but no consultation reply was received within the 30 day consultation period, thus in accordance with the provisions the law, is construed as no objection.”

The site is located within a Natura 2000 site: Zona fil- Bahar fil- Grigal ta’ Malta designated as a Special Area of Conservation International Importance.  An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and an Appropriate Assessment (AA) were submitted and reviewed by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA).

“The EIA has identified potentially important impacts on, and risks to, the marine environment, avifauna and marine archaeology the significance of which depends largely on the thorough implementation of pre-emptive safeguards and operational mitigation measures. Such impacts are mainly derived from the site’s location within the above mentioned Natura 2000 sites.”

The EIA concluded that the proposed development will have a significant impact due to, among other things, an increase in oil pollution due to increase in maritime traffic in the area. It also mentions that a major significant impact is also envisaged on the benthic ecology, through loss of habitat (mainly rhodoliths) vis-à-vis deployment of moorings and shading effects (during operation); and that the introduction of alien species and disease-causing organism is considered to vary from major to insignificant residual impact from the proposed development on the ecology. “The Introduction of bird species as a result of increase in abundance and diversity of small fish species, and the increase in population of Larus michahellis (Yellow-legged Gull) which threatens the population of the Hydrobates pelagicus (Storm Petrels) is also considered to vary from major to not significant. With regards to marine archaeology, a major to not significant impact is envisaged on the buried artefacts.”

The case officer notes that a number of mitigation measures were proposed within the report, including that the mooring design be optimised to ensure against drifting during storms, the deployment of permanent oil booms inside each cage and use of oil skimmers, and other mitigation measures

“ERA concluded that the proposed development is unlikely to have significant residual impacts, when considering: The temporary nature of the farm until the North Aquaculture Zone is set up; the temporary and seasonal nature of the operational activities; that most of the identified impacts are of a reversible nature; and that the operations are restricted to small portion of the total area of the Special Area of Conservation and Special Protected Area.

“This conclusion is being made on the understanding that stringent mitigation measures and pre-emptive safeguards will be implemented throughout both deployment and operation of the fish farm. Conditions were include to ensure, among other things, that the integrity of the Natura 2000 site is maintained,” the ERA said.

A large number of people have objected to the application. One objector highlighted that an online Parliamentary petition against this application was even filed, with 1865 Maltese residents having signed it.

Some objectors argued that “if the amount on biomass has remained the same then there is no need for more pens. History has shown us that when the tuna farm operators increased the pens illegally from 8 to 14 (in 2016) we had huge amounts of nauseous odours of dead fish, slicks of fish oil and surface slime of decomposed fish matter, fats & offal. Doubling the number on pens again will only cause more pollution and slime and damage to the environment.”

Fish farms came under fire last summer, after it was found that many were not respecting permit conditions, and reports of fish slime continued to make headlines.

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