The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Penning: caging wild predators and impoverishing our seas

500 kilos of lean muscle gliding through the water at 60 kilometers an hour with stupefying elegance: Meet the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, if allowed to, may grow up to around 4 meters in length yet too often ends up caught before to become a delicacy for sushi lovers across Japan, Asia and beyond.

In the wild, this magnificent and unique fish species has been turned into the fragile and vulnerable prey of the tuna industry where it is worth its weight in gold. It is known that the gold rush does not end until there is the smallest amount of it left to grab. Predictably this year, a local tuna farming venture applied to double upon its current tuna penning operation. While this may provide benefits to the business persons involved, would such expansions be beneficial to Malta, its surrounding marine biodiversity, environment and socio-economic welfare? The tuna penning industry has long been a topic of controversy in Malta.

There have been accusations of underreporting and illicit practices from local ventures. In 2007, ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) estimated that 51% of all Bluefin Tuna catches in the Mediterranean were illegal and unauthorized. Later in 2007, the EU instituted infringement procedures against Malta and 5 other nations. Again, in 2008 Malta received another warning from the EU. This time, a meeting with ICCAT followed, and the annual catch limit was lowered.

In February 2018, 10 illegal tuna pens were reported in St. Paul’s Bay. Were these subsequently regularized? According to increasing numbers of studies and international NGOs, wastes from tuna penning degrade adjacent waters and harm the marine environment. Oily fats, offal, carcasses, and excess feed from tuna farms threaten local water quality and benthic life. Even if the immediate environment below a tuna farm is sand, there is benthic life being put at risk, while currents carry these impacts for kilometers away from the penning activity.

The excess production and waste that comes from tuna farms can attract more predators and detritus feeders that would typically be absent from the locality where the farms are placed. In June 2002 a five-meter-long female great white shark swims in a tuna cage off Tripoli Libya, while in October 2009 another large female great white shark breaks through the bottom of a tuna pen in the waters off Mahdia, Tunisia. Though tuna farms have often been described as aquaculture in actual fact they are not, as all the tuna are caught from the wild, when the Bluefin tuna are more vulnerable and easy to catch due to the mating season in the Mediterranean, and then fattened to be sold off-season.

Tunas, being predators themselves, are considered as the tigers of the sea, and as journalist Paul Greenberg says “Why would you domesticate a tiger when you could domesticate a cow,” he asks — “or, even better, a chicken, which converts just two pounds of vegetarian feed into a pound of meat.”, cautioning that we should be eating further down the marine food chain, before we are forced to do so because there is no alternative.

The Mediterranean Sea is a wonderful and biologically diverse region of our planet and while the region covers a very small fraction of the world’s waters, this sea contains a remarkable diversity of marine species. European law clearly stipulates the necessity to protect natural life and resources, both of which would be put at risk when anthropogenic activities which are unsustainable and environmentally damaging are allowed to expand.

Multiple pieces of legislation have been passed that list the year 2020 as a deadline for clear environmental improvements. The General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 is the central piece of European legislation that has set this marker, additionally, in the context of fisheries, the Common Fisheries Policy and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive lay out what sustainable resource management and good environmental status mean. It seems counter productive therefore to hear of considerations for further expansions of any activities that have already proved to go against various 2020 targets and would violate EU legislation concerning conservation, the protection of Natura 2000 sites and the protection of vulnerable species.

European law and Maltese policy clearly mandates the need for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for projects that may put the environment and its conservation at risk. EIAs are procedures that are intended to ensure that the environmental implications of decisions are fully considered before a final decision is taken. The EIA looks at the unique nature of the site, but Environmental & Resources Authority (ERA) officials must consider the already proven dangers of expanding upon this industry and assess the full range of impacts this activity has.

BICREF has been a consistent voice for the conservation of biodiversity, including the safeguard of Bluefin Tuna. It highlighted the various dangers of penning wild tuna since the introduction of the industry to Malta in the early 2000’s, as it stands steadfast behind the need for marine conservation in the central Mediterranean, which is a hotspot for species diversity. Our local waters, and the Central Mediterranean as a whole, deserve the utmost stringent protection from exploitation and degradation. Malta’s artisanal fishermen with their traditional colourful Luzzu should be encouraged to culture their seasonal small-scale fishing activities without the fear of being outcompeted by large commercial activities that aim at quick and large financial gains.

Malta’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, but the occasional tourist’s dives in tuna cages cannot counter the year round impacts of tuna farming, on Maltese and tourists alike. It is important to note that the current Minister for the Environment, Dr. José Herrera, is making significant strides in the right direction, prioritizing long-term needs for environmental reform. In the media, the Minister frequently communicates the need for biodiversity conservation. Having an impassioned leader who is taking steps in the right direction and stresses the importance of conservation and biodiversity is a good omen in the fight to protect our natural environment.

There are many parties involved in the implementation of environmental regulations from national environmental authorities and inspectors, prosecutors, courts, auditors to NGOs and citizens themselves. All have a role in upholding the integrity of EU environmental legislation in respect of future generations. Participation in avoiding further degradation and impoverishment of the Maltese marine environment also involves saying no to tuna penning and yes to conservation and sustainable use in aid of our decreasing marine biodiversity.

This feature is dedicated to the 25th year celebration of the International Day for Biodiversity, organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

For further details and BICREF’s work contact:

Feature written by BICREF volunteer, Kaelib TeeGarden, with the assistance of Dr. Adriana Vella, PhD., expert Bluefin tuna researcher and BICREF ngo founder.