Listen: The growth of fish farming in Malta

In the second episode of Ganado Meets Maritime, Jotham Scerri-Diacono, co-partner at the shipping department of Ganado Advocates, speaks with Robert Aquilina, a fish farming veteran and CEO of Pisciculture Marine de Malte Ltd, to discuss the naissance and growth of fish farming in Malta, its successes, environment and economic status, and future. 

The origins of fish farming in Malta

The Maltese, since the Roman era, have always practised the concept of keeping fish alive for future harvest but the ‘real’ concept of fish farming, originating in Germany in the 1700s, reached Malta in 1988 with the aid of several influential foreign figures.

“Fish farming is the culture of aquatic animals starting from an egg, performing the full cycle, to produce a portion-sized fish, depending on the existing market,” Robert Aquilina, a fish farming veteran and CEO of Pisciculture Marine de Malta Ltd, says.

Pisciculture Marine de Malte Ltd began operations in Malta in 1990 following a boom in fish farming popularity and further investment opportunities. The company soon began setting up cages and preparing coastal areas for the practice.

Legal environment

While hopeful for prospects of commercial fish farming, Aquilina notes that “everything was very new here at the time”. There were few set guidelines and Ganado Advocates were the pioneer firm on this front, drawing up the first agreement with the government to pave the way for the company’s operations in 1991.

Regulations continued to increase throughout the 1990s with the planning authority until a more secure legal framework began to be formed in the 2000s and 2010s. This eventually culminated in the requirement of specific renewable environmental permits with very strict requirements for land- and sea-based operations in the industry, of which Pisciculture Marine de Malte Ltd are proud possessors.

The industry’s success

Every business is subject to certain amounts of turbulence, especially agricultural industries, Aquilina says, praising the overarching success of the fish farming industry in Malta. Pisciculture Marine de Malte Ltd – the first to the island’s abundant coasts – produces 1,300 tonnes of fish per year and exports roughly 1,000 to critical acclaim in European supermarkets.

“There is a demand for our fish, the quality is very good, the sea is pristine.”

Aquilina talks about the local and international reputation of Maltese fish despite the increasingly large competition in the market. On a more global scale, he points out that 70 per cent of fish consumed worldwide is farmed, despite the frequent ire of fish farming.

The cultivation of fish and its ethics

Much in line with other pastoral industries, fish farming has strict parameters, in spite of many preconceptions of cruelty and infamy.

Although unlike wild fish in principle, there are still many considerations taken to the comfort of the fish grown: water quality, as well as cage size, stocking density and the necessity for organic, densely packed and good-quality fish feed due to their sensitive and slow-to-adapt physiology.

On the other often-noted practices of agricultural industries, there is no real opportunity for the traditionally criticised force feeding and antibiotic or steroid use during the fish’s relatively long 18-month growth cycle.

“It is one of the few animals that is bred in captivity and takes so long to grow,” Aquilina explains.

The marine environment and related activities

Fish farming generally contributes to the marine environment in numerous ways, whether through its impact on the surrounding environment to the industries it interacts with.

Despite the relatively “small” impact of fish farming on the environment, Aquilina notes that it does not replace the priority of ensuring a sustainable marine environment in the 21st century. “Spin-offs” in the industry are created, whereby experts in marine ecosystems are hired to carry out status checks on the seabed and measure living organisms – another opportunity generated by fish farming.

“We give a lot of work to a lot of industries in Malta,” Aquilina says.

This ranges even further to cage manufacturers who securely build the enclosures, ferry and barge vessels under the Maltese registry, guards entrusted with the security of the cages, and extends even further logistically. Even the exportation of fish is securely outsourced to a transport company until it reaches its final destination, further creating traffic in the economy.

The industry’s future

Aquilina notes that the Maltese fish farming industry should be proud of its achievements, especially since, as a country, we have no background in the industry. However, forecasting a certain future for the islands is difficult due to “stiff competition”.

International rivals have low operating costs and abundant land, resources Maltese coasts lack. In spite of this, the industry can grow on paper and continue with its role as yet another asset in the multifaceted Maltese economy.

The author would like to thank Mark Anthony Kuflewicz for his support during the preparation of this article.

This article was first published in the Times of Malta.