Last week The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society released around 800 tuna from a cage headed to Malta's fish farms, in a move condemned by the Maltese government.
Bluefin tuna is "the country's third most exported commodity", according to the Finance Ministry, and it represents one per cent of the country's GDP. Last year Malta exported over EUR86 million worth in 11 months. But while revenue from the species has exploded for industry 'farmers', income for the traditional fishermen has been reduced to a trickle.
So, prime minister Lawrence Gonzi's speech in defence of 'fishermen' only rubbed salt to an open wound for those upholding the old methods in places like the southern fishing village of Marsaxlokk. It is a place that regularly features in images Malta promotes to tourists, but the weathered faces of the fishermen mending their nets in the village tell a different story to the one the country sells.
Charles Bugeja's family boasts four generations of fishermen. Today his father's vessel has been on land since May and the quota he was allocated was so low that it was reached within a few weeks. Bugeja said: "The Sea Shepherd people are doing what the government should have done to protect the tuna and the livelihood of traditional fishermen who have lived off the sea for generations. " While he understood the decline in tuna populations now requires such measures, he was bitter that his family was suffering the consequences of a big commercial industry controlled by a few.
Thousands of traditional fishermen currently have no work, he said, as others around him nodded in agreement. Those who speak up against the industry are alone, because most fishermen now depend on the industry to survive. Families who had made a living out of traditional fishing now have at least one family member who works for the industry, or depend on the industry to buy their catch. The Sunday market in the village now only sells what the industry refuses to take for export to the lucrative Japanese market.
"These are not fishermen," said Bugeja of the industry. "These are businessmen."
Technological innovations in the fisheries sector have developed to maximise catch and minimise effort. But traditional fishermen in Malta oppose such fishing methods. Their work requires hours of patience during days at sea. Their practice is sustainable. They take what they need and waste is avoided.
The industry uses purse seine vessels that throw bait and then surround the fish with curtain-like nets. They cover a targeted area that indiscriminately traps all fish into a cage. The by-catch is dumped and the tuna towed towards farming cages where they are fattened for export.
One trip can rake in hundreds of tons of tuna for the industry, compared with the handful of fish drawn in by traditional fishermen. While the country's purse seine fleet is small compared to other Mediterranean countries, Malta is still regarded as 'the global capital of tuna farms'. Spearheaded by magnate Charles Azzopardi, who owns the majority of pens on the islands, Malta has grown to be one of the world's major players and is backed by Japanese funding. Malta is strategically positioned to exploit the global tuna industry. The pens that were intercepted by The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on the way back to Malta were caught by Libyan vessels, the operators admitted.
Libyan waters are known for unregulated fishing where inspectors from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which manages the Bluefin tuna fishery, have been hindered from their task.
The action by The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society occurred after the EU had announced the closure of the season on June 9. Yet, within hours the Maltese government stated the catch was legal.
In 2008, the European Commission insisted on an investigation of two fishing vessels that were caught being renamed and reflagged twice in the same season. It was reported that they belonged to Azzopardi's fleet. The outcome of the investigations was not published.
Malta's adamant defence of its tuna industry was evident during the international effort to ban trade of the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in March. Malta was the only country to oppose Europe's support for a ban on Bluefin tuna trade till the end, even as other Mediterranean countries with a stake in the trade backed down.
Politics failed to protect the endangered species and Malta claimed victory. Meanwhile, a new WWF report says overfishing will wipe out Bluefin tuna in three years.
But what Malta's fishermen are asking is, why is the government continuing to assert the country's defence of the international tuna trade instead of ensuring the livelihood for the largest number of fishermen?
Caroline Muscat is a freelance journalist based in Malta.