Fishing bomb could have been a 'national disaster'

Fishing bomb could have been a 'national disaster'

The bomb found on the Um El Faroud by divers. Photo: Veronica Busuttil

The bomb found on the Um El Faroud by divers. Photo: Veronica Busuttil

Had the fishing bomb found on the Um El Faroud diving site on Sunday exploded it would have been a "national disaster", according to a diving instructor with more than 30 years experience.

"If that explosive had gone off, the implications are that it would have been a national disaster. There could have been both Maltese and tourists dead or very seriously injured," had the bomb gone off on a Sunday when many divers frequent the popular site off the coast of Wied iż-Zurrieq, Antonio Anastasi said.

The illegal explosive device, used by fishermen to kill fish, was spotted by divers at the site on Sunday morning. They kept their distance and immediately called the Armed Forces of Malta once they had surfaced. The AFM's Bomb Disposal Unit diffused the device shortly after.

One of the divers who spotted the bomb, 41-year-old Veronica Busuttil, who has 15-years experience, said she and her diving buddy realised immediately what they were dealing with. They remained calm and resurfaced to call in the authorities.

The device appears to have had an ominous message attached to it, saying in incorrect Maltese: Nifs qawwi itilqu freely translated meaning deep breath drop it. However, sources said that one could practically exclude the possibility that this was intended specifically for the divers. The paper on which the message was written formed part of a longer script, which has no relevance to the explosive or to diving, the sources said.

The news sent shockwaves throughout the diving community, which has long been complaining that popular dive sites are not adequately protected from fishing practices that could pose a danger to divers.

In 2008, a law that made illegal the casting of nets or fishing lines on wrecks was passed to address these concerns. However, Mr Anastasi insisted that, while the laws went a long way to help the situation, the effort would be in vain unless there was regular patrolling.

Besides the health and safety aspect, there is also an economic argument to be made for the protection of dive sites from these sort of dangers.

As Simone Brinch-Iversen, of the Professional Diving Schools Association pointed out, there are now 45 dive centres in Malta and as many as 60,000 divers each year come to experience the sites the island has to offer.

"We are pressing the government to ensure that non-fishing areas such as the Um El Faroud site are patroled to prevent things like this from happening. Malta has a reputation for offering really safe diving, so an incident like this obviously puts that reputation in jeopardy," she said.

Questions sent to the Malta Maritime Authority remained unanswered, and a spokesman for the Parliamentary Secretariat for Tourism echoed the call from the industry.

"The Secretariat supports all the enforcement efforts by the competent authorities to eradicate such actions, not only because of their inherent illegality, which could lead to loss of human life, but also because these could have reverberating negative effects on our diving tourism market," he said.

The police would not comment officially but an officer who spoke on condition of anonymity insisted that regular patrols did take place even though he admitted that it was difficult to stop all illegalities at sea.

Meanwhile, a prominent former member of the Fisherman's Co-operative, who also lectures on fishing at the University, deplored the incident. Ivan Portanier, said: "I have never agreed with using explosives to catch fish, especially in a protected area. People who do things like this aren't real fishermen. They're just people trying to make a quick buck."

Dive sites, including the Um El Faroud, were earmarked as conservation areas by the MMA in 2008, meaning that it is illegal to anchor or fish there. Diving vessels are allowed to anchor, however.

The Um el Faroud, a former Libyan tanker that was brought to Malta for repairs, was removed from the Shipyards and scuttled off the Żurrieq coast in 1998 after it exploded, killing nine yard workers three years earlier.

The wreck, which now sits at a depth of about 30 metres, is considered to be one of the most attractive dive sites in the Mediterranean by the worldwide diving community.

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