training to keep his eyes open, Charles Azzopardi slouches at the wheel of the Madonna Tal-Hniena (‘Madonna of Mercy’) as it bobs about in the central Mediterranean, southwest of Malta. Every 30 minutes or so, he pours another cup of black coffee from a flask and lights a cigarette. ‘Today, it’s the fourth consecutive fishing trip in as many days,’ he tells me. ‘That’s 20 hours of work every day for four days.’
It’s the peak of the two-month tuna-fishing season for Malta’s longline fishermen. Windy weather had grounded the Madonna Tal-Hniena, an 18-metre, 22-year-old wooden boat that would look at home in a museum, for three weeks, and now the rush is on: the remaining month will determine the year’s profit or loss for the four-man crew. The bluefin tuna – a fish that those on board profess to loathe – has turned their fishing business into an annual cycle of boom and bust. Never before in the generationsold family fishery business has fishing been such an ordeal.
Charles and his brother Tony learned the trade from their father after they had both dropped out of school. Fishing is the only life they know. ‘I cannot read or write,’ Charles tells me. ‘And I can only talk Maltese. It’s embarrassing when a foreigner speaks on the radio and I can’t even answer back.’ He describes himself as being ‘condemned to this work’.
i ndustrial s c a l e For the brothers, the travails of fishing became a condemnation about ten years ago, when the Japanese started scouring the Mediterranean for tuna. That’s also when the purse-seine fishery expanded, and tuna ranches sprouted up around the shores of the western Mediterranean, taking whatever the purse seiners could scoop up in their huge nets.
‘The purse-seine boats locate the fish as they congregate to spawn,’ Charles explains. ‘Then they feed them to make the shoal denser, and typically round up 40 tuna in one sweep of the net. It takes us an entire season to catch as many fish.’
Scooping the fish out of the sea just before spawning is the antithesis of sustainability, but the money involved – a large tuna, weighing 200 kilograms or more, can fetch about £100,000 in Japan, and the Japanese buy 70 per cent of Malta’s catch – ensures that such considerations are pushed to the side. Tuna fishing has become an industrial operation. Different fleets share notes and employ high-tech detection techniques, including sophisticated sonar equipment, and even send up aircraft to search for shoals of tuna from the air.
The Maltese long-line fishermen, all of whom are small-scale and use hooks, have also been swept along in the scramble. Up to 15 years ago, tuna was just another fish in a varied annual fishing cycle. Back then, Maltese fishermen jointly targeted swordfish and tuna between April and August. ‘On an average two-day trip, we used to catch about eight large swordfish,’ Charles says. ‘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 tuna.’
Yet they still managed to catch about ten 250-kilogram tuna every season. Then the tuna suddenly became very valuable, and it now accounts for at least half of the annual income of Maltese fishermen.
Catch quotas were eventually introduced by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the body responsible for managing tuna fishing. This 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 tonnes, yet this year’s national quota was only 161 tonnes. For the Madonna Tal-Hniena, the natural capacity 15 years ago – when tuna was a bycatch – was 2,500 kilograms; now its quota is 2,000 kilograms. When I joined the crew, they had already caught 13 fish: the largest weighed 150
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38 www.geographical.co.uk DECEMBER 2010