Relocation of pens ‘reduced tuna size’

The tuna farm was relocated from St Paul’s Bay last year

Updated Monday 2.40pm: Adds statement from Stop the Slime campaign

Azzopardi Fisheries has said an application to double the number of tuna cages at its offshore farm is necessary because the quality of its tuna has been hit by the imposed relocation.

The operator has applied to increase the number of cages at Sikka l-Bajda from 12 to 24. The extra cages will not hold any additional tuna but will ensure that the fish have sufficient space to allow them to reach optimal size before harvesting.

The farm was relocated from St Paul’s Bay last year on the Planning Authority’s orders after tuna farms around the island were identified as the source of oily slime which plagued beaches and coastal areas.

The relocation was intended as a temporary, two-year measure until the approval of a designated aquaculture zone on the same site.

In a Project Description Statement, the operators said that as a result of the relocation, stocking density in the permitted cages was double that of previous years, such that the tuna did not grow to full size due to excessive competition in a relatively small area.

They also said that due to delays in the permitting process, much of the purchased tuna had to be kept on tow for a considerable period of time before they could be caged. As the fish were not fed during this period, they ended up losing weight rather than fattening. Moreover, culling had to take place earlier in the season due to the limited space and competition for food in the cages. As a result, the tuna did not have time to acclimatise and begin adding weight.

The company argues that increasing the number of cages will allow it to reduce the stocking density in its cages from approximately 275 tonnes of biomass per cage as opposed to 275 tonnes of biomass per cage in 12 cages.

The total biomass will remain within the legal limit of 3,300 tonnes.

Nicolai Abela, from the campaign group Stop the Slime, raised questions over the operators’ statement.

He said that as the number of permitted pens had remained 12, the overcrowding could only be explained due to the operators having previously used a significant amount of extra illegal pens.

“If in one year you were running twice the amount of permitted pens and then the next year regulations were enforced to reduce to the permitted number then it's quite logical that you have less space to contain your tuna.

"Having said this operators have been consistent and adamant that their yearly catch is never over 2,400 tonnes which gives a very reasonable density of 200 tonnes per pen - much less than the 275 they specify,” he said.

The application is still awaiting an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but Environment Minister José Herrera confirmed last week that 10 illegal tuna pens had been discovered on the site.

The minister said orders had been given for their removal, but aerial photos taken a day later showed 21 pens visible on site.

The EIA for the application, currently subject to public consultation on its terms of reference, will run in parallel with studies for the designated aquaculture zone. The studies and permitting process for the aquaculture zone will not be completed in time for the 2018 season.

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