The Accidental Fishermen

Slouching at the wheel and straining to keep his droopy eyelids open, Charles Azzopardi skippered the Madonna Tal-Hniena (which translates ‘Madonna of Mercy’) in tuna spawning grounds in the central Mediterranean southwest of Malta. Every thirty minutes or so he poured a cup of black coffee from a thermos and lit a cigarette – infusions that kept him awake.  


“Today it’s the fourth consecutive fishing trip in as many days,” he told me. “That’s 20 hours of work every day for four days.”     


It was the peak of the two-month tuna fishing season for the longline Maltese fishermen. Windy weather had grounded the Madonna Tal-Hniena for three weeks, and now the rush was on: the remaining month would determine the year’s profit or loss for the four-man crew. The bluefin tuna – a fish that the fishermen on the boat detested and couldn’t stomach – had turned their fishing business into yearly scenarios of boom or bust. Never before in the generations-old family fishery business had fishing been such an ordeal.   


The brothers Tony and Charles had learned the trade from their father. They dropped out of school early. Fishing is the only life they know. “I cannot read or write,” Charles told me at one point. “And I can only talk Maltese – it’s embarrassing when a foreigner speaks on the radio and I can’t even answer back.” Then he spoke about being “condemned to this work.”


For the Azzopardi brothers, who catch tunas from their 18-metre 22-year-old wooden boat that would look at home in a museum, the travails of fishing became a condemnation about 10 years ago. That’s when the Japanese started scouring the Mediterranean for tuna, now buying 70 percent of Malta’s catch. And that’s when the purse-seine fishery expanded, involving large boats with massive nets, and tuna ranches sprouted up around the shore of the western Mediterranean, gobbling whatever the purse-seiners could scoop.  


“The purse-seine boats locate the fish as they congregate to spawn.” Charles explained. “Then they feed them to make the shoal denser, and typically round up 40 tunas in one sweep of the net. It takes us an entire season to catch as many fish.”    


Scooping the fishes out of the sea just before spawning is the anti-thesis of sustainability. But the money involved – a large tuna, weighing 200kgs or more, can fetch around £100,000 in Japan – has adulterated everything. Tuna fishing is no longer about fishing; all sense of proportion has been lost. It’s become something of an industrial operation: different fleets share notes and employ high-tech detection techniques, as well as recconnoitre planes searching for shoals of tuna from the air.  


The longline Maltese fishermen, all of whom are small-scale and use hooks, have also been swept along in this irrational scramble. It’s the dynamics of exploitation and impending extinction: as the tuna becomes scarcer, teetering towards extinction, the scramble to catch the remaining fishes intensifies even as the value of the work diminishes. And all of that came about in a mere 15 years. Back then, tuna was just another fish in a varied annual fishing cycle. At the time, 15 years ago and earlier, Maltese fishermen jointly targeted swordfish and tuna between April and August. “On an average trip that lasted two days,” Charles recounted, “we used to catch around 8 large swordfishes. We didn’t even directly target tuna then, partly because the demand wasn’t high and partly because the fishing line and hooks we used weren’t strong enough to withstand the struggles of large tunas.” 


Yet they still managed to catch about 10 large 250kg tunas every season. Then the tuna suddenly became very valuable, and now tuna accounts for at least half the annual income of Maltese fishermen. (The population of swordfish in the Med has also similarly plummeted.) Catch quotas were eventually introduced by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the body responsible for managing tuna fishing.  


That was another blow to the Maltese fishermen. The natural capacity of Malta’s tuna longliners – up to 70 are operational; the exact figure is unclear because some fishermen ‘sell’ their quota – is about 350 tons, yet this year’s national quota was slashed to 161 tons. For the Madonna Tal-Hniena, the natural capacity 15 years ago – when tuna was a by-catch – was 2500kgs; now their quota is 2000kgs. When I joined the crew, they had already caught 13 fishes: the largest one weighed 150kg, a fluke nowadays, but a pitifully small tuna by historical standards.   


“In the old times,” Charles told me, “we worked in a more relaxed manner and we made more money. We used to continue fishing for tuna until the dorado season starts in mid-August. I miss fishing in July, when the water is calm. Now we can only sit idly in July.”  


Industrial tuna fishing has distorted the entire world of the traditional Maltese fishermen. They are joining other traditional fishermen in other parts of the Mediterranean as yet another group of social and human victims of industrial tuna fishing. The original tuna fishing method in the Mediterranean consisted of an elaborate maze of traps placed underwater. Tunas are then lured into the maze, where they get lost and end up in the inner chamber – this trap is then lifted to the surface and the tuna inside bludgeoned to death. A variation of this trap is the Italian trap called tonnara. These practices go back hundreds of years (in Malta there is no a museum that exhibits these old traps).   


There are still about two dozen traditional traps in use in the western Mediterranean (in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Italy). But the decimation of the tuna population has reduced the catches to pitiful levels. And use of these traps is now more of a ritual than serious fishery; in some cases, the traps have become a tourist attraction, bringing in much-needed income to the isolated fishing communities.  


Maltese fishers are the next level up. Commercially viable, yet with limited reach: longline fishing in smallish launches only gives them the capacity to hook an average of 2 or 3 tunas from an entire fishing trip (the problem with longline fishing is the hundreds of turtles caught unintentionally in the hooks annually by Maltese fishers). This doesn’t mean that all longline fishing is sustainable; it’s a matter of degree. “Some long-line fleets targeting tuna are large-scale, industrial vessels,” pointed out Gemma Parkes of WWF Mediterranean. “So longliners also need to be controlled.”  


Controls do exist: longline fishers can only employ up to 2000 hooks now. The Madonna Tal-Hniena has just over 1000 hooks. These hooks are baited with mackerel and squid and then attached at intervals of about 30 metres apart to the main fishing line, which runs to tens of kilometres. On the Madonna Tal-Hniena, the boat leaves port at midday and the line is deployed throughout the afternoon as the boat chugs ahead. After dinner, all the fishermen on the boat dozed off and I sat alone on the prow, entranced by the moonlight and pure silence that’s only possible far out at sea. Then Charles joined me after thirty minutes. “I can’t sleep,” he muttered. 


“You know we are supposed to discard any tuna we catch that is smaller than 30kgs?” he added. “What’s the logic in discarding a fish that’s already dead?”  


Another fisherman I had joined on a different trip had a similar story. He was a fisherman who fished alone for swordfishes, deploying 120 hooks less than 10km off the coast. Tuna is a by-catch for him, and every season he might find five tunas dangling from the line. “Last year,” he told me, “an inspector turned up and warned me that even tuna caught accidentally wasn’t permitted. This is my family business: I catch my own fish and then I hawk it myself. And now they are telling me I cannot take tuna that gets caught in the line?”  


Back on the Madonna Tal-Hniena, the crew started reeling in the line at around 11pm. The logic of fishing at night is that tuna rise up closer to the surface in the dark. Five hours later, there were three tunas and two swordfishes on deck – all relatively small, yet enough to leave a handsome profit.  


“It’s an encouraging catch,” Charles told his brother Tony. “So we can take a day off tomorrow.”  


“Now is our chance to make some money,” Tony replied. “We can talk again about this in the morning.”  


It was already four in the morning. Charles turned to me, seeing me studying the prints of saints hung in the cabin. The most intriguing print depicted a boat in the foreground and God rising in the background, forming a protective embrace around the boat. Others showed the nativity of the Madonna, St Joseph, and St John the Baptist.  


“We have a lot of saints,” he chuckled. “But we are very slow: we need another hour to get home.”  


The launch, constructed of wood, was stable and durable. Charles kept it in impeccable shape: every year he gave it a fresh layer of paint. But it’s sturdiness made it unwieldy and cumbersome in the water. “We were going to get an auto-pilot,” Charles said. “But how can we justify such a cost when our future seems so uncertain and our income so unpredictable? I think my brother and I are at the end of the line in this family business.”   



Tuna Troubles 

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is divided into two subpopulations, in the western and eastern Atlantic. It’s the eastern subpopulation that has been ravaged by overfishing, which takes place when the tuna migrate to spawn in the calm and warm Mediterranean Sea. The fishes are scooped in purse-seine net, and transferred to floating cages that are tugged to tuna ranches. The fishes are then fed for around 6 months in the ranches before being slaughtered and sold.  


It’s estimated that the breeding population has fallen by about 85 percent. As catch statistics reveal a pattern of tuna caught progressively smaller, scientists feat that breeding-age tuna – tuna older than 4 years old and heavier than 35kgs – is being systematically wiped. (From reports, I extrapolate that this year’s tuna caught in the central Mediterranean weighed around 60kgs.)    


In a bid to control over-exploitation, catch quotas are tightening: the 2010 quota was 13,500 tons, down from 19,950 in 2009. Monitoring has also been intensified, but illegal fishing is still prevalent, and the true catch is acknowledged to be higher than the quota. Discrepancies between catch and trade statistics are an indication that tuna ranches under-declare the tuna they take in. (The tuna ranches explain these discrepancies by natural growth during the fattening stage, but natural growth is not as high as the discrepancies indicate.)      


“Farm capacity is unsustainably high, and the ranches are part of the spiral of overexploitation,” told me Gemma Parkes of WWF. Another contention with tuna ranching is the wastefulness of low biomass conversion ratio: a tuna needs 20kgs or more of mackerel to gain an extra kilo of weight.    


In Malta – which has a tuna ranching capacity of 12,300 tons, the highest in the world – tuna fattening has become big business. Tuna now constitute the island’s third-largest export commodity, generating around €100 million annually. The tuna ranchers, as well as the purse-seine fishermen (the countries that have most purse-seine fishermen are France, Italy and Croatia), have become millionaires.  


But the Maltese longline fishermen have suffered: they may make more money from tuna than before, but their work has become almost unbearable and overall they may be poorer. Yet the longline fishermen don’t have a voice – most of them cannot even read or write. They are organized in two cooperatives: about 16 tuna fishermen are members of the Ghaqda Kooperativa Tas-Sajd, and about 40 members belong to the Fishermen Cooperative. The secretary of the former is the owner of a trawling operation, while the secretary of the Fishermen Cooperative, Raymond Bugeja, owns a tuna ranch and one of the only two purse-seiners in Malta (which didn’t work this year as Malta’s quota was allocated to longline fishermen). Bugeja has a direct commercial stake in industrial tuna fishing, but he denied having any conflict of interest. He told me: “I assist and speak on the behalf of the Maltese longline tuna fishermen all year round seven days a week. My main income comes from the tuna farm, but my father and I operate a traditional tuna fishing boat, and I have other businesses. I believe in diversity.” 


The influence of tuna ranching can be seen in the way Malta has changed its national policy in regard to tuna conservation. Ten years ago, Malta was calling for the establishment of a tuna conservation zone in the central Mediterranean where only small-scale traditional fishing would be allowed. Now, in a position paper sent to the EU earlier this year, the Maltese government wrote nobly of Maltese traditional fishermen and sustainable fishing, but then says that controls should continue to rest with ICCAT to avoid ‘dual governance of the species.’ But ICCAT has so far failed to curb overfishing or illegal fishing, and the decimation of tuna continues apace in the central Mediterranean.  


© Victor Paul Borg. This article was originally published in Geographical Magazine in 2010.


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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