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
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
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
“It’s an encouraging catch,” Charles told his brother Tony. “So we can take a day off
“Now is our chance to make some money,” Tony replied. “We can talk again about this in the
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
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.”
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
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