Fish farms processing increasing numbers of tuna

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Bluefin tuna may be classified as an endangered species, but the amount of tuna processed in Malta – the world’s leading exporter of the species – shows no signs of decline, according to figures tabled in parliament today.

Figures provided by Fisheries Minister Anton Refalo in reply to a parliamentary question by MP Edwin Vassallo show that Malta’s fish farms took in 5,063 tonnes of tuna in 2016. But the amount increased to 8,667 tonnes in 2017 and to 9,265 tonnes in 2018, before decreasing slightly to 8,816 tonnes last year.

Through the fattening of the captured stock, Malta’s fish farm operators sold 9,559 tonnes of tuna in 2016. The number increased to 13,736 tonnes in 2017 and 16,640 tonnes in 2018 before dropping to 12,720 tonnes last year. However, an additional 2,413 tonnes of tuna have already been sold by Maltese fish farms this year, using stock captured in previous years.

International quotas increasing

The increase is in line with a rise in international quotas, set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The quota for Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic Ocean was set at 28,000 tonnes in 2018, 32,000 tonnes in 2019 and 36,000 this year, increases that were welcomed by fish farm operators but condemned by conservation NGOs including the WWF.

Fish farming is deemed to be a threat to the Atlantic bluefin tuna as the tuna are captured wild and fattened on a diet of fish before being slaughtered and sold. It is primarily exported to Japan, where the fish is highly prized ingredient for sushi and sashimi. While efforts to breed tuna in captivity are ongoing – including at the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre in Marsaxlokk – the process is yet to be perfected and made viable, thus resulting in a lucrative global market dependent on the declining numbers of an endangered species.

A lucrative, controversial sector

Malta’s tuna farming operators are no strangers to controversy, locally and overseas.

Perhaps the issue that has garnered the most attention in Malta is the “sea slime” which intermittently accumulates across the Maltese coast, often blamed on the oily feed used by fish farms. But beyond our shores, allegations of misconduct have gained more traction.

In February 2019, the Director General of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Andreina Fenech Farrugia, was suspended after Spanish police intercepted incriminating phone calls. Through these conversations, it is alleged, she helped the Fuentes Group – who own the Mare Blu tuna farming operation in Malta – breach international regulations. No successor to Fenech Farrugia – who has denied any wrongdoing – has been appointed.

The Spanish police also flagged the alleged transport of illegal tuna to Spain, with documents submitted in court naming Mare Blu as well as Malta Fish Farming Ltd. Both companies have denied their involvement in any wrongdoing, and the Malta police are also investigating the matter.

Vassallo had originally asked his parliamentary question last March, shortly after the scandal erupted, but the question went unanswered until the MP asked for the same question this month. Figures for 2015 were also sought, but have not been immediately provided as existing records have not yet been digitised.

The figures published by Refalo show that among the fish farm operators in Malta, Mare Blu took in the largest number of tuna over the past four years, taking on 9,838 tonnes in total. Mare Blu is followed by Fish & Fish (6,920 tonnes), Malta Fish Farming (6,041 tonnes), AJD (4,757 tonnes), Malta Mariculture (3,575 tonnes) and Ta’ Mattew (680 tonnes).

As for exports, including the tuna exported this year, Mare Blu has exported 15,646 tonnes since 2016, followed by Fish & Fish (12,975 tonnes), Malta Fish Farming (11,409 tonnes), AJD (8,678 tonnes), Malta Mariculture (5,363 tonnes) and Ta’ Mattew (998 tonnes).

Mare Blu was the leading producer from 2016 to 2018, but was overtaken by Fish & Fish and Malta Fish Farming last year. Fish & Fish has been the leading producer so far this year.