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NEWS | Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Azzopardi’s invisible moving tuna ranch

It cannot be seen at night, it is a kilometre away from where it was originally meant to be sited, and occupies an area over twice of that approved by the Malta Environmental & Planning Authority. Must be an Azzopardi tuna ranch...

MaltaToday has concluded an in-depth analysis of the bluefin tuna fattening ranch off St Paul’s Islands, belonging to Azzopardi Fisheries and managed by AJD Tuna Ltd (an Azzopardi Fisheries subsidy), and can state that the current farm is still in breach of a number of its original permit conditions, eight years after its controversial “re-approval” in 2001.
The ranch in question was first approved in October 2000 by means of permit PA 07377/98. This permit allowed the applicant four tuna cages of 42m in diameter (an explanatory note provides for a change to this figure, which now stands at 50m). But a year after the permit was granted, AJD Tuna Ltd had already expanded its farm from four to eight cages, without any additional approved permit.
Although the Planning Authority voted in 2001 against this illegal extension, an extraordinary “re-vote” was taken on the insistence of the government’s representative to the board, Nationalist MP Michael Bonnici. No satisfactory reason for this re-vote has ever been forthcoming; but Ivan Portanier, then head of the Fisheries Co-operative, had this to say at the time: “Azzopardi Fisheries’ knight in shining armour was more than worth the weight of his armour...”
This highly irregular PA decision, which went against the authority’s own policy guidelines, marked the beginning of a string of ‘coincidences’ whereby authorities turned a blind eye to numerous irregularities associated with this farm over the years.
Today, MaltaToday can now reveal that the tuna ranch off St Paul’s Islands is still in breach of even the most basic of its permit conditions. These include the following:

• “The tuna farm shall be set up within the parcel of sea identified in approved drawing PA 7377/98/36A.”
MaltaToday has seen this approved drawing at MEPA’s offices in Floriana, and can confirm that the “parcel of sea” in question does not correspond to the area where the tuna farm is currently sited (see satellite photo). The present farm is a kilometre further east from the approved location, and occupies an area more than double the size of the original plan.

• “The applicant shall, within one week from deployment, provide the exact co-ordinates of the cages to the Malta Maritime Authority (MMA) and the Planning Authority”.
According to the original PA Case Officer who recommended a refusal of the 2001 application to sanction the illegal farm, “(these were) never provided and in fact the farm ended up being set up in the wrong location.”
Seven years later, MaltaToday once again requested the official co-ordinates from both the MMA and MEPA, but our requests were repeatedly ignored – with the result that the precise location of the farm cannot be reconciled with any officially approved document at all.

• “The cages shall be maintained at the co-ordinates of deployment and shall not be moved around except with the prior approval of the Malta Maritime Authority and the Planning Authority.”
As the original co-ordinates were apparently never supplied, this condition was always going to be a non-starter. Nonetheless, MaltaToday asked the Malta Maritime Authority whether it has ever approved any change in position of the farm, but in spite of a reminder sent on Monday, no reply or even acknowledgement has been forthcoming in the past two weeks.
Consequently it has proved impossible to determine whether the MMA has in fact approved any “moving around” of tuna cages, as has evidently occurred since the original permit was approved.

• “Further cage deployment beyond the first four... shall be the subject of a new application.”
MaltaToday has yet to trace any new application for the additional two cages since the last extension was approved in 2001.

• “The cages shall be kept in place by means of moorings disposed as per approved drawing PA 7377/98/1F.”
The 2001 case officer’s report observes that “although this was based on information submitted by the developer and confirmed by his consultants, the actual cage deployment utilised a different mooring layout which resulted in a much larger area (nearly twice that approved) actually being developed.”

• “The perimeter of the cage site shall be marked by means of marker buoys which shall also be illuminated at night, as per maritime regulations and as directed by the Malta Maritime Authority.”
In 2001, the case officer observed that the MMA wrote to the PA on 4 September 2000 to inform the authority that, “among other things, the lighting system is not adequate and that it was not functioning.”
Even today, MaltaToday is informed that the MMA has received numerous complaints, mainly from mariners, that the tuna ranch in question is frequently left in utter darkness and that it constitutes a hazard to navigation: so much so, that there have been a number of reported collisions involving privately-owned boats of various sizes.
Again, however, for reasons unknown the MMA has insisted on ignoring our request for a simple confirmation of these reports.

• In comments to Malta Economic Update (April 2008), Rural Affairs Minister George Pullicino observes that: “Environmental Impact Assessments are carried out prior to the setting up of a farm. An Environmental Monitoring Programme, involving both the seabed and the water column, is maintained annually throughout the farm’s lifespan.”
And yet, an evident exception was made in the case of Azzopardi Fisheries. On account of previous condition breaches – namely the improper location of the farm, and the choice of moorings – the case officer in 2001 observed that “(the farm) was set up in an area which was not the subject of the EIA”... 3
7 Furthermore, because the EIA was carried on a different stretch of seabed from the one over which the farm is sited, the subsequent monitoring of the site, as required by the permit conditions, can only be considered inconclusive.

An extra 1,000 tonnes?
But by far the most serious irregularity associated with this farm is its declared capacity, which is listed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) as being 2,500 metric tonnes.
This information is based on official statistics communicated by the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs to the European Commission. But it has been openly disputed by international tuna consultancy firm Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies (ATRT/SL), which has been involved in cage design and deployment since the 1980s.
According to ATRT/SL, a 50-metre cage at a depth of 40 metres should not hold more than an initially transferred maximum biomass of 150 tonnes per cage. (And interestingly enough, the statistics supplied by ATRT/SL correspond neatly with those mentioned in the original permit, which are as follows: “The existing farm (in 2001) comprises four tuna penning cages, each of a diameter of 42m and a depth of 15m. Each cage can hold between 80 and 125 tonnes of fish...”)
The discrepancy is all the more serious in the light of recent allegations that Malta may be involved in an international tuna laundering racket. By over-declaring its capacity, the ranch in question would be able to export at least 1,000 tonnes more bluefin tuna than it actually contains.
Considering that the tuna laundering racket operates precisely by concealing “hidden exports” of illegally caught tuna by third countries, an explanation for this anomaly from Rural affairs Minister George Pullicino would be appreciated.
Also, in view of the above list of breached conditions, MaltaToday would like an explanation from Transport Minister Austin Gatt (as the minister responsible for MMA) and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi (as the minister responsible for MEPA) as to why both these authorities appear reluctant to answer any questions about the myriad irregularities associated with Azzopardi Fisheries.

 


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