We constantly hear how our seas are depleted, how fishing stocks have drastically dropped and how the human impact and pollution have changed the oceans.
What we rarely hear is how fishermen have been impacted by such drastic changes.
There are various types of fishermen and fishing practices. There are full scale fishing factories, professional fisherman, small scale professional fishermen and there are also recreational fishermen.
I am one of those recreational fishermen. I catch fish sustainably, one by one, that I don’t sell, I eat it myself or give it freely to relatives and friends (even charities sometimes). I also practice catch and release when possible (the practice of catching a fish and releasing it back safely).
In this article I will focus on recreational tuna fishing, a hot topic because of its ultra-controlled environment and strict laws. (Hopefully I will have the opportunity for future articles on different aspects of recreational fishing, including swordfish, lampuki and fishing laws in general).
Every year hundreds of Maltese boat owners apply for a tuna fishing permit with the Fisheries Department. Anyone with a recreational boat, which in Maltese law is any boat registered as S or MFC, can apply for this license. These amount to the thousands of boats. (Granted, not all of them apply for a tuna fishing license, but they can).
The recreational tuna allocation is currently of 2 tonnes, 2000kg. Being conservative, if we take that tuna weighs 80kg that’s 25 fish between everyone. Tuna caught around Malta are sometimes much larger than that. This permit also gives the opportunity to the holder to catch a tuna every day for the whole season.
The recreational season starts on 15th June till October or when the quota is depleted.
This year the EU increased the Maltese national quota by 15% but the local recreational quota remained the same. The quota is distributed among local fishermen by the Fisheries Department. While everyone in the tuna business rejoiced, we, the sustainable recreational fishermen remained with the 2-tonne misery.
The 2021 recreational tuna fishing season lasted 11 days.
Fines for catching a tuna out of season runs in the 10s of thousands of Euro and confiscation of the fishing vessel.
Personally, I didn’t even manage to go fishing once as I was caught up with work and planned my vacation leave for later. While the sea is boiling with tuna around us, I have a freezer full of bait fish and fishing gear ready, which I can still use to practice catch and release but I can’t catch and take home a tuna.
The recreational tuna permit was negotiated years ago, and the rules implemented don’t make much sense for nowadays. Nowadays, even shore fishermen have the tackle and power to catch a tuna, from land. The interest in this big game fish increased by time. Fishing practices and methods for tuna fishing are negotiated locally.
The recreational tuna permit was negotiated by an elitist few and targeted for people with huge boats, who can fish for tuna while trolling for albacore tuna but nowadays even with a small 13-foot boat can safely catch a tuna from inshore.
The local tuna permit restricts people on how you can catch a fish. These restrictions are imposed locally. For example, handlining, a practice you even see on famous tv shows but the local departments deem it unfit for Maltese fishermen.
Handlining, which is catching a tuna on hand by using a rope and a mainline, pulling the fish up using your hands, is an exhausting, adrenaline-filled practice that is as sustainable as using a rod. There is no difference for the end result. Last year harpooning was also removed from the local license.
Even line thickness is dictated by the local law.
A look at other European countries and you won’t find these restrictions and bureaucracy.
These practices are in the budget of everyone and that is why they are more popular. How can someone be incentivised to use a rod and reel in the current legislative conditions? Is it worth it for a recreational fisherman to spend thousands of Euro on a tuna fishing setup for this misery of a quota? For a week of a season every year?
Small reminder – at the same time, tuna purseiners are catching tunas by the tonnes with huge nets, and we even increased their quotas and are rejoicing about it.
We, recreational fishermen need to find the collective courage to challenge and fight for our rights, and to change our existing, outdated laws. We need to be heard and show how, by unity we can work to change and keep practicing our hobby and way of life.
What I and many other recreational fishermen ask for is:
– increase of recreational tuna fishing quotas
– less bureaucratic and outdated laws
– a clear distinct set of laws
– more respect to local recreational fishermen
– more stringent controls on illegally caught and sold fish
– a voice and a strong union that reflects modern and sustainable fishing.
Justin Meli is a recreational fisherman, an electronic music producer and works in the social sector.