Fish farms: Herrera will not shy away from stronger action against operators if needed

Environment Minister José Herrera will not shy away from taking more severe measures against fish farm operators, as had been seen two years ago, should they not abide by regulations, but has said that he is not doing so now as the operators have made certain commitments.

The Minister was answering questions put to him by The Malta Independent on Sunday, last Friday, when this newsroom highlighted the fact that the sea slime issue has been recurring over the years. He was asked whether he would consider revoking licences now, or if the issue comes up again.

“I made it very clear to the fish farm operators,” said the Minister, “that if they don’t adhere to, and abide by, the regulations they will face an enforcement order.” He highlighted the fact that, two years ago, he had revoked licences and made the operators move further out to sea, away from their location at the time. He mentioned that he had had to take serious decisions at the time, such as issuing an emergency enforcement order.

“I stopped them and, once I had stopped them, they moved out. So if necessary I will take that draconian action again. I am not taking it now because the operators have given me a commitment. It is not my intention to destroy the industry – definitely not – but to regulate it in a sustainable manner.”

In a statement on Thursday, the Minister had confirmed that the absolute majority of the sea slime that has appeared on vast stretches of the Maltese coastline, resulting in complaints from many residents, was attributable to the tuna industry.

Investigations by the Environment and Resources Ministry and the Fisheries Department also revealed that fish farm operators were not observing permit conditions. The government statement also said that where it had been established that operators had not taken steps to mitigate the release of oil and other related material, immediate measures had been taken to prevent them from feeding certain fish until they had implemented the necessary measures to bring them into conformity with permit conditions.

This newsroom asked the Minister to say precisely what action would be taken against fish farm operators who breached the conditions, and whether any fines would be imposed, or court action taken.

Herrera said that he had directed the Environment and Resources Authority and the Fisheries Departments to take the necessary steps and measures at law against operators who failed to honour their obligations.

He said he could not dictate to the regulatory authorities what action should be taken, but he did say that action could potentially see administrative fines, which run into a considerable amount, being imposed. “Instructions were issued that until these farms come into line with regulations, they will not be allowed to continue caging or feeding the fish”.

The minister clarified that not all fish farm operators were at fault, but did not disclose the names of the companies who had breached the conditions. “Once they come into line with the regulations, it does not mean that there would never be any problems, but such problems would be mitigated as much as possible.”

He said that he had instructed the regulator to take action, but the regulator is autonomous – which means that it would decide whether or not to impose administrative fines.

Another major announcement was made earlier this week, in the wake of the sea slime. The Maltese Federation for Aquaculture Products announced on Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with four out of the five fish farm operators to regularise their procedures between August and the end of October in order to have cleaner seas for everyone. The agreement includes several considerations that the operators must adopt and follow to ensure that the environment around them is treated well and with full respect.

Such measures include each operator having to place booms around each cage to stop any oils that emerge from the feed used for the fish spreading into the open water; that each operator has a boat dedicated to going round the cages and picking up any waste that has been generated; that the feed should be transported and processed in accordance with the best environmental practices and that there should be an independent person appointed by the Federation to assess and report on the practices that the signatory operators are using.

In addition, the agreement stipulates that two vessels should patrol the coast to collect any waste thrown into the sea, including plastics and other materials that damage Malta’s eco-system, and also includes a commitment to set-up establish a call centre that operates seven days a week.

The Environment Minister was asked by this newsroom whether he knew who would enforce the agreement. He replied that the enforcement of any agreements made by the private sector is up to them, thus indicating that it would be the Federation who would handle the implementation. “As a regulator, we will not abdicate any of our authority or responsibility for implementation.”

Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers Secretary John Refalo confirmed with this newsroom that the industry will be taking the agreement that the producers have made between themselves seriously. He also confirmed that the Federation would be overseeing the agreement and that if an operator blatantly begins to breach any aspect of the agreement, then action would be taken. He clarified, with regard to action that was taken against those fish farm operators who breached permit conditions, that the order to stop feeding fish was not for all cages, but for those which did not have any booms

In a statement on Saturday, The Maltese Federation for Aquaculture Producers said that booms have been installed in every cage used by fish farm operators who signed the agreement last week. The Federation said that while there were some operators who already had the booms installed, others were in the process of concluding this exercise. Meanwhile, for the cages without Booms, feed had been partially suspended. This process, the Federation said, is now complete, and the cages belonging to the operators who are signatories of this self-regulation agreement are armed with specific material to, as much as possible, catch oil and other material which could escape as a result of the industry.

The Federation noted that regular inspections by sea and air are taking place so that the Federation will have a better understanding as to how the member operators are operating. The operators who signed the agreement thus far are AJD Tuna Limited, Fish and Fish Limited, Malta Mariculture Limited and MFF Limited.

Professor Joe Borg, Head of the Science Faculty at the University of Malta, has been appointed as the independent expert to analyse and closely follow the environmental aspects related to this industry.

Environment Minister Herrera, responding to further questions by this newsroom on Friday, said that he sent for the fish farm operators earlier this week, and told them that he was disappointed that they were not adhering to regulations. “They made commitments. I have yet to see whether they will honour these commitments, but hopefully they will. It seems that things are moving in the right direction.”

On hearing that the slime was a direct result of fish farming, the Minister said he was not only disappointed, but also angry. “Not with all the fish farm operators, but with those who were breaking the regulations. I was disappointed because the government has been generous to them. We want to promote all kinds of industry, so any business has to be encouraged and protected, but in a sustainable manner: I cannot allow one industry to benefit while disregarding the others. By ruining the seas, the tourism industry will suffer, and the tourism industry is more important than the fish-farming industry. The quality of our lives is also more important.

“Having said that, remedial action has been taken and hopefully things will improve.”

In 2016, the National Statistics Office released some date in relation to the aquaculture industry. The gross output of the aquaculture industry, which comprises mainly tuna farming and closed cycle species, amounted to €160.5 million.

 

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