Lessons from a tragedy
Two weeks after a boating tragedy which left three dead and an 11-year-old boy missing, Fisheries Cooperative president Ray Bugeja tells Herman Grech that Sicilian fishermen were not responsible for any wrongdoing, despite a previous altercation.
A lot has been written and said about the situation out at sea in the wake of the Simshar tragedy. What is it really like out there?
There's a lot of activity out at sea. We sometimes meet people fleeing Africa, we are out there competing with other fishermen, sometimes we argue with those who cross our fishing lines, there is the odd altercation and shouting match, but it stops there.
Are Maltese and Sicilian fishermen constantly stealing each other's catches?
I wouldn't say they're stealing each other's fish, but sometimes there are disruptions when fishermen are collecting their fishing lines. Sometimes it leads to a clash, but it doesn't escalate further.
Are you ever scared that things might spiral out of control when you're out at sea?
No. There is only fear when fishermen on board small vessels come across large vessels (purse seiners) during the tuna season. That can be dangerous.
I know of somebody who owns a boat who recently had warning shots fired in his direction by Maltese fishermen simply because they felt he crossed their territory. Why should fishermen be carrying weapons?
I condemn any such incidents. It doesn't make sense for anybody to resort to weapons to get his message across.
Do you know of any fishermen who are carrying shotguns when they're out at sea?
I'd be lying if I said I'm not aware of it. However, during the tuna season in May and June, when you're faced with a tuna weighing some 300 kg at the end of your line it might get aggressive, and the only way of neutralising it is by shooting it by what we fishermen refer to as the bullet head. There are some who use a shotgun.
Do fishermen take the odd shot at each other sometimes?
No. The only case I know about took place some six years ago when a Maltese fishing boat fired a warning shot against an Italian purse seiner.
So are you denying claims that fishermen are turning the Mediterranean into something of a Wild West?
It's not the case.
What does the term VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) mean to you?
To start with (before EU membership), fishermen and their representatives objected to it because it exposed the exact area where they were fishing. If you want to hurt a fisherman then all you need to do is to expose his whereabouts.
Fishermen feared that the Fisheries' Department would know where they were fishing and that they could relay the information to others. The VMS was introduced anyway. The EU emphasises that the VMS has to be properly monitored. If the VMS isn't working, the authorities have to somehow try to contact the fisherman and sea movements have to be recorded every two hours.
Are fishermen using the VMS?
All the fishermen can see is a green light but they wouldn't know if the VMS is transmitting a signal.
Are Maltese fishermen concealing their VMS signal when they're fishing illegally?
They can only do so if they switch it off, which would be irresponsible.
What happened in the Simshar's case? Why was there just one electronic message?
The Simshar was under 12 metres in length so its owner had no obligation to have a VMS. But since it was equipped with one, it was ultimately the authority's responsibility (to ensure it was working). The Simshar's VMS was not working during its final trip.
Didn't it record one message after it was 'pinged'?
Yes it was 'pinged' but it wasn't transmitting every two hours, as it should have.
Was it not transmitting normally because the boat owners somehow stopped it?
I can tell you from personal experience - the VMS of a boat of mine hasn't been working since July 5 and I had to report it to the authorities myself. The system is not guaranteed to work like clockwork.
Do you rule out that the Simshar was carrying out any illegal activities and this is why the VMS wasn't working?
Illegal in what sense?
Maybe it was fishing illegally?
The people on board the Simshar were good people. When people talk of illegal activities they immediately think of the worst. Maybe they feared that they were fishing when the tuna season was officially closed. It is in fishermen's nature to catch fish for a living...
So what you're saying is that the Simshar was fishing illegally.
Maybe it still had the tuna fishing lines in tow.
Apart from the VMS system, do the fishermen's families have ways and means of tracking them?
What's common nowadays is the satellite phone, though not everybody can afford some €2,500 for the equipment alone, apart from the expensive courses.
What kind of contact was there between the occupants of the Simshar and their relatives?
I imagine there was some phone call but I will speak from experience - God knows how many times I went out to sea for five days but decided to extend my stay by two days without telling anybody. It's in our nature. It was therefore no big deal for the Simshar to delay contact with relatives.
Still, everybody seemed to have become aware of the incident when it was too late.
I got to know about the incident myself when a reporter from The Times called me for information. When the Simshar failed to appear I thought they had thrown the fishing line back into the sea.
Why has there been no trace of the boat if there really was an explosion?
I don't know why anybody is expecting to find a trace of the boat after a fortnight. When a fibre boat is on fire it is very flammable. If there was a patch of fuel it would have moved with the sea flow. Bear in mind, however, that we found items like a plastic bucket and cork, which were on board the Simshar. If they (authorities) had the resources and they want to conduct a proper inquiry, they should do a reconstruction of the incident.
The Simshar even had an automatic fire extinguishing system and a lifeboat which failed to work. How could so many things go wrong?
That's a difficult question to answer. But when the fire broke out they may have thought they were able to control it. Maybe they didn't resort to fire emergency procedures at once. But what if the fire was too strong and they jumped into the sea? I recall that three weeks before the incident Simon's life vest was inside the cabin, as was the life raft. But life rafts have to regularly serviced and nobody has taught fishermen how to maintain life rafts.
Do you believe Simon Bugeja's version of events?
I was beside Simon just two hours ago. Firstly, it's not fair for the investigators to try to extract information from him when he has a psychiatrist's certificate which says that he is not 100 per cent mentally fit at the moment. However, I believe that a fire like this could have been sparked by a simple battery explosion. If there's a fire in the engine room it would spread...
...but diesel does not cause explosions.
But it could spread a fire. Diesel pipes in engine rooms should be made of brass, but I know most of the pipes of Maltese fishermen's boats are made of rubber.
Simon Bugeja evidently went through an ordeal. So do you stand by his version of events?
When Simon was rescued by the Grecale (one of Ray Bugeja's vessels), he said he had lost trace of his son in the morning and that he had bound white and red floats to his father's wrists. And when Carmelo's (father) body was found, that's what he had attached to his wrists. The state in which the corpses were found also tallies with Simon's timeline detailing when they died. Of course when you spend a week in the water with the sun beating on you, it's easy to hallucinate and not recollect the events. I am not only basing my theories on Simon's version of events - there was definitely no Italian involvement in the explosion.
Were there any explosives on board the Simshar?
Explosives are used illegally to catch more fish. The Simshar had no explosives on board. I stand by my theory that there was an explosion on board. It's important for fishermen not to panic and resort to all safety procedures when something like this happens.
There are claims that Simon's father, Carmelo, had fired shots at Sicilian fishermen a couple of weeks before the incident. Can you confirm this?
I am not aware of any shots being fired, but, yes, there was an argument with Sicilian purse seiners around mid-June. They threw their net over the fishing line of the Simshar and stole an expensive signal transmitter. There was a fight... Carmelo was a edgy person and he lost his temper quickly.
What kind of fight was it?
Well, you know, they sometimes throw things at each other - weights tied to floats, bottles are hurled...
What do you make of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds that 11-year-old Theo Bugeja was kidnapped by Sicilian fishermen?
Wherever I travel I fly the Maltese flag, I'm proud to be Maltese, but the Maltese are champions at cooking up these kinds of stories. It really doesn't help us to come out with these theories, especially when the bodies of the victims had not yet been found. It stirred panic and anger among the fishermen.
So are you convinced that the Italians were not involved in this incident?
People keep asking me whether the Sicilians could have paid them back. But they were not involved. I'm 100 per cent convinced. I can guarantee that by June 18, all the Italian vessels were back in Salerno and they were not in the vicinity of the incident on the day. I've experienced bigger fights with the Italian fishermen, when we ripped their nets over a tuna dispute. Fighting among fishermen is spontaneous. It's often a fight between the big and the small vessels; we tell them we are taking their particulars, take photos and report them.
There are reports that Simon Bugeja is in relatively good condition in hospital, despite the ordeal...
...it isn't true. He has suffered burns and his skin has peeled off in places. When he was rescued one of his lungs was not working. The doctor who first treated him feared he wouldn't survive until the next morning. I think Simon remained alive because of his son. I also have a son around Theo's age, and when you're in that situation you do your utmost to keep your son alive. And I believe Theo survived for so long because he took his father's advice not to drink any sea water. The others did.
So you believe this was a genuine incident and there was no foul play?
The longer the authorities take to reach their conclusions, the more damaging it's going to be, the more conspiracy theories we're going to hear.
And you believe that the only shortcoming by the Simshar is that it was fishing illegally?
Yes, it was illegal, but I repeat, no fisherman is going to throw any fish back in the sea, irrespective of the regulations.