Malta’s technological leap towards sustainable fishing

From the distribution of tablets to a streamlined system of communication, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s initiative underscores a big commitment to sustainability, efficiency, and the overall well-being of the fishing community.

In a move to modernise fisheries management, Malta’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is spearheading an ambitious initiative to introduce the latest technologies for enhanced data collection and streamlined administrative processes in the fishing industry.

This involves the distribution of military-grade tablets, the integration of advanced systems, and the enforcement of new regulations to ensure accurate and real-time reporting.

The Journal explored these developments by speaking to Gilbert Balzan, the Director of Fisheries within the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, that is part of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Animal Rights.

Technological aids in fishing

Gilbert Balzan explained that, at present, fishermen employ Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), utilising tracking devices on all vessels. Boats exceeding 12 metres employ VMS, providing position updates every two hours, while those under 12 metres use GPRS, updating positions every few minutes. These technologies not only assist in monitoring catch data but also play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of fishermen, particularly in situations requiring assistance from the Fisheries or the Armed Forces.

A transition to tablets

The Fisheries Information System, introduced in 2009, has been a cornerstone in data collection. This is a virtual application that helps fishermen input data that the Department of Fisheries Aquaculture requests. However, not all information, application forms, and services are available on this system, and the data submitted is still categorised and must be sorted manually by human employees within the Department.

Recognising the need for a more integrated approach, Malta is now amalgamating various components that fishermen constantly deal with, including the fishing register, e-logbook, VMS, GPRS, and sales notes, into a cohesive and streamlined system for efficient fisheries management.

Gilbert Balzan explained that the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is distributing 700 military-grade tablets to every full and part-time commercial fisherman. These tablets, equipped with the fisheries app, resist sea spray, and have a very robust design, minimising the risk of breakage upon impact. Their objective is to consolidate all available resources and data collection methods onto a unified platform accessible through these tablets, significantly enhancing convenience and efficiency.

The tablets also provide instant access to vital information for fishermen, including data on landings, declarations, and direct communication from officers within the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The same level of controls and functionalities will be available to vessels of all sizes, and not just the larger boats. This means that there will be a fully integrated system for streamlined fisheries management, irrespective of the size of the vessel.

Documenting fishing activities

Documenting fishing activities is paramount, and this transition is expected to contribute significantly to more sustainable fishing practices.  Here’s a short run-down on why data collection is important for sustainable fishing:

Stock Assessment

Data on catch quantities, species composition, and size distribution help scientists assess the health of fish stocks. This information enables the determination of sustainable catch limits that prevent overfishing and ensure the long-term viability of fish populations.

Ecosystem Monitoring

Comprehensive data collection allows for a better understanding of the marine ecosystem. This includes the interactions between different species, the impact of fishing activities on non-target species (bycatch), and the health of habitats.

Quota Management

Accurate data on catch quantities and species composition are essential for setting and enforcing fishing quotas. Quotas help regulate the number of fish that can be harvested, preventing excessive exploitation.

Bycatch Reduction

Data collection helps identify trends in bycatch, the unintended capture of non-target species. With this information, fisheries can implement strategies and technologies to minimise bycatch.

Compliance Monitoring

By accurately tracking catches and fishing activities, authorities can identify and address instances of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Adaptive Management

Continuous data collection allows for adaptive management strategies. As new information becomes available, fisheries managers can adjust regulations and conservation measures to respond to changes in fish populations or environmental conditions.

Educational initiatives

To ensure a smooth transition from the existing system to these tablets, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is actively engaging with the fishing community through collective meetings and personalised lectures. This targeted approach addresses the diverse technological comfort levels within the community. Gilbert Balzan tells us that there is a specific focus on approximately 200 to 250 individuals who may face challenges. Most of these are older, full-time fishermen, and they are being given one-to-one help to get accustomed to this technology.

Ownership, insurance, and costs

To formalise the tablet distribution process, individual fishermen are required to sign a special form, acknowledging the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s ownership of the tablets and its commitment to covering data transmission costs. Recognising the value of these tablets, the Department encourages fishermen to include them in their ship’s insurance coverage, providing an added layer of safeguard against unforeseen incidents.

The Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s comprehensive initiative represents a big leap toward a technologically advanced and integrated fisheries management system. From the distribution of tablets to a streamlined system of communication, the initiative underscores a big commitment to sustainability, efficiency, and the overall well-being of the fishing community.

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