New control centre discovers widespread illegal trawling
Illegal trawling of fish may have been a commonplace activity before 2013: since the establishment of Malta's first-ever control room to monitor vessels inside the fisheries management zone, 21 cases of illegal fishing and trawling were reported last year.
But just two cases of illegal trawling inside the FMZ were reported between 2009 and 2012.
The FMS is a 25-mile conservation zone surrounding Malta, where trawling is only allowed in a number of designated areas.
Now a staff of five monitor boats inside the FMZ as they conduct their fishing activity, using the vessel monitoring systems (VMS) aboard boats and monitoring them on a 24-7 basis, even on public holidays.
All 23 cases which have been investigated have been found to be non-compliant with fishing rules, but some cases have not been finalised and legal action is still pending.
In total, the fisheries protection officers detected 17 cases of illegal activity by trawlers inside the FMZ, using the vessel monitoring system, and six other cases using the automatic identification system (AIS).
Trawling is presently permitted in 12 designated zones within the marine conservation area. None of the trawling zones are in marine protection areas, or any other conservation areas established to date.
Malta's exclusive fishing zone, which extends to 25 nautical miles from the island's baselines, was declared in 1971 in accordance with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.
On EU accession in 2004, this zone was maintained as a Fisheries Management Zone (FMZ), the first of its kind in the Mediterranean, with an overall area of 6,735 square kilometres. The aim of the FMZ is to protect the fisheries resources of Malta's sea area and the ecosystems on which they depend.
As a rule, only vessels smaller than 12 metres are allowed to fish within the zone since these are considered as boats which practice small-scale coastal fishing and therefore the least harmful to the ecological regime within the zone.
But trawlers smaller than 24 metres in length are allowed to trawl in specified areas within the FMZ. As a further restriction, in areas where the depth of the sea floor is less than 200 metres, such as Hurd's Bank, these trawlers must also have an engine capacity that does not exceed 185kW (250 horsepower).
Vessels over 24 metres in length, along with those vessels over 12m that are authorised to carry out fishing operations within the FMZ, are obliged to carry the required electronic tracking equipment on board at all time.
Of the only eight vessels officially allowed to trawl inside the FMZ, four - the Stella del Mar, the Hannibal 1, the Degre and Liberty 5 - are just under the 24-metre limit for trawlers.
In 2013, one vessel was granted a scientific licence to trawl once in the north-east of Malta's marine protected areas, for which no conservation measures are yet established. This permit was issued for the GAP II scientific survey, which is being undertaken in order to investigate spawning and nursery areas within the FMZ.