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The absent uncaring enforcers - Claire Bonello

There was a dead tuna fish floating off the coast of Sliema last week. A huge dead fish bobbing up and down on the waves a few metres from bathers near the Chalet. It was the third one in the area in a fortnight. All three rotting specimens had been seen off Qui-si-Sana – in the very same area where swimming had been banned for a week because of “a discharge of water from an unknown source”.

I don’t know about water – it’s usually not too bad unless it’s mixed with a high concentration of drainage. But anyway – you might have thought it was better to quit Sliema (ironically the site of a number of new beach clubs and lidos) if you didn’t want to bathe in turds or have some rancid fish carcass brushing against your bikini.

But there was little relief in the waters beyond the so-called Golden Mile. Yet another dead tuna was rolling in the wake of canoes off Mellieħa. In Delimara, bloated fish guts swollen into grotesque shapes swished around on the sea surface in Kalanka Bay – the same bay destined to house an upmarket eco-resort.

The once beautiful St Peter’s Pool a few metres away was awash with plastic debris and fast food containers and a lick of sea sludge. There was even more sludge in Dragonara Bay and in Xgħajra where the rotting fish stench engulfed bathers. Simi­lar scenes of filth and polluted seas characterised the peak summer season.

Now that it has been established that the sickening slime is not fairy froth – but emanating from the fish farms – we have been assured that the fish farm operators (or some of them) will be teaming up to self-regulate and clean up religiously. This response has elicited outraged fury from the public – for more reasons than one.

In the first place, we have been here before – last year our seas were turned into a sick sludge, with our children being deprived of the last open space so some Japanese sushi lover can titillate his taste buds with tuna belly morsels. Even then the leaders of the tuna industry had vowed to take mitigation measures. What we ended up with is a larger tuna ranch zone and a bigger problem.

The tuna ranch industry in Malta cannot face the consequences or boycotts of the Maltese consumer, because its consumers are overseas

In the second place, industry self-regulation can possibly work, but only if it is embraced by the whole industry, and there are some effective deterrents in the case that one ignores a common code. In this case, not all the tuna ranches have agreed to abide by a common set of rules, and there is no deterrent or incentive to stick to any rules. What would be the consequences of any breach by one tuna ranch? Naming and shaming? Being ostracised from the Maltese tuna ranch community? Fat lot of good that will do. The tuna ranch industry in Malta cannot face the consequences or boycotts of the Maltese consumer, because its consumers are overseas.

The only connection it has with Malta is the exploitation of its unique resource – the sea. Incidentally, that resource is a public one being used for exclusively private gain. I wonder what the resultant balance would be if we had to offset the tax revenue made from the tuna ranching industry against the cost of the environmental degradation of the seabed and the sea. Eventually we’ll also have to factor in the way that tourism, the water sports industry and the catering industry will be affected if the pollution persists.

So self-regulation is just another sop thrown at the public to ward off further criti­cism until the swimming season is over and the sickening sludge being produced is less visible as less people go to the beach. In the meantime, the authorities can keep on pussyfooting around the word that dare not speak its name – enforcement. Across the board – in practically all spheres of Maltese life – enforcement is lacking. This may be due to a number of reasons, ranging from a lack of resources to complexity of operation.

However, instead of rising to the challenges and beefing up our enforcement systems, there has been the adoption of a laissez-faire approach in the hope that everybody will be happy doing his own thing and (hopefully) play nice. Regulations have been relaxed till they are practically non-existent. Penalties are rarely imposed. When they are, they are negligible. In theory, this sounds like fun – no nanny State hectoring individuals to do this and that, no fines, no penalties – just limited freedom to prosper and produce.

In reality, it is a free-for-all, where everybody does as he pleases with horrific, long-lasting effects on the weaker members of society and the environment. The social contract is broken and it is the blameless victims who will suffer.

drcbonello@gmail.com

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