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In defence of slime - Mark Anthony Falzon

I am of the opinion that the tuna-pen slime making bathers’ lives miserable is a very good thing. A few days ago the Prime Minister visited what is probably the best known fish market in the world, Tsukiji in Tokyo. With him, a delegation that included Charles Azzopardi of Azzopardi fisheries. The occasion was to admire the handiwork of an industry that, in the words of a beaming Prime Minister, “did Malta proud” (“tagħmel unur lil Malta”).

Thankfully not entirely bowled over by the wave of national pride, Reno Bugeja asked Azzopardi about the slime oozing from his tuna pens back home. Azzopardi put on his best mortified look and replied that new technology was in place that would prevent further pollution. He also apologised “for any inconvenience caused”.

Let us for a second accept that tuna-pen slime is an inconvenience. That it is not, in other words, a major pollutant that destroys all manner of marine life by literally smothering it in unwanted nutrients and starving it of oxygen. Or that it does not cling to the skin and take days of obsessive scrubbing to wash away.

Happy to accept that all of that was just an inconvenience, I was left with a creeping feeling of déjà vu. Which was strange, because I’ve never been to Japan, nor have I ever been stopped on the streets of London by people telling me how honoured I must feel to be a tuna-ranching Maltese. It didn’t take me too long to discover what I had seen and heard before.

In 2017, a Times journalist interviewed a man at a meeting in St Paul’s Bay who looked just like Charles Azzopardi of Azzopardi Fisheries. His name was Charles Azzopardi. He said that new technology was in place that would prevent further pollution. He also apologised “for any inconvenience caused”, and added that he had done the same in 2016 (“anke is-sena l-oħra”).

Every year in summer, Mostin make merry at the feast of Santa Marija, cicadas sing hide-and-seek in trees, shopkeepers shift bagloads of charcoal, and Charles Azzopardi gives an interview in which he promises new technology and apologises for any inconvenience caused.

It’s become something of a summer ritual, this. The wind refuses to be bribed, and the ‘cleanest sea in the Mediterranean’ and its inhabitants get all slimed up. A man apologises, the experts move in with their instruments, ministers scramble to find the right big words, and all is quickly and conveniently forgotten.

Ritual being what it is, we cannot not accept Azzopardi’s apologies. Instead, all we can do is look on as a fish that is classified as endangered on the definitive Red List of Threatened Species is exploited, bringing down with it a whole ecosystem. Perhaps Azzopardi is right after all: the slime is but a minor inconvenience compared to the real threat.

Every year in summer, Mostin make merry at the feast of Santa Marija… and Charles Azzopardi promises new technology and apologises for any inconvenience caused

There’s something profoundly nineteenth century about the tuna ranching industry. It’s that sense that nature will never give out, even as the whaling fleets stretch populations to breaking point and hungry sailors stock up on Great auks until the very last one is clubbed to death off Iceland.     

We’re told it’s great for the economy. Last year, the tuna-ranching industry left Malta with a hefty trade surplus with Japan, cars or no cars. Over €120 million worth of tuna was exported to Japan in 2017 alone, most of it to end up as sashimi.

And yet, the astonishing income involved is misleading. Last year I had a conversation with the aptly-named Alicia Said, a fisheries expert who at the time worked for a world-leading institute at the University of Kent. She told me that I shouldn’t be too cross at the fishermen who daily wrought havoc with their trammel nets (pariti) along the coast, simply because most of them have no choice. It was a topic she had researched and written about.

I took the hint and read her work. Even shrunk to fit a nutshell, the story’s unsettling indeed. Backed by powerful and possibly corrupt interests (Said cites a source that says that tuna operators routinely bribe Maltese politicians), the tuna-ranching industry has bled artisanal fishers of tuna-catching quotas and elbowed them to the overfished, unsustainable and economically-vulnerable margins of their trade.

I quote from Said’s work: “These processes are generating a deep socio-ecological crisis which would appear to be beneath the radar of the Maltese government. As a result, the prospects in fishing have become bleak at multiple levels, and artisanal fishers are gradually abandoning the commercial fishing sector for they sense that the tide has turned against them.”

An old and not-so-shocking story, some might say – when the motor car was invented, carriage-makers found themselves in trouble, and so on. Except there are currently four tuna-ranch operators in Malta, and they get to carve up a chunky €120 million. There are hundreds of artisanal fishers, and they are left with the dwindling numbers of pathetic cuttlefish in their trammel nets.

So no, the tuna-ranching industry does not do Malta proud. On the contrary, it is an indictment of a kind of politics that privileges the rapacious few and impoverishes the many, and contributes to the decimation of marine life in the process.

It is depressing to see the Prime Minister parade Charles Azzopardi like some kind of prize athlete. He represents an industry that has economically, socially and culturally dispossessed hundreds of people in Malta alone, and ravaged marine ecosystems the world over.

Let there be slime, because without it no one would notice.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

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