Aquaculture in Malta is marine-based. It consists of the capture based aquaculture of the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus thynnus), as well as the culture of European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) and Gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata) with a small production of Meagre (Argyrosomus regius) and amberjack (Seriola dumerili). Atlantic bluefin tuna is exported mainly to Japan, whereas European seabass and Gilthead seabream are exported to Europe, mainly Italy. Aquaculture of seabass, seabream and meagre takes place in floating cages, approximately one kilometre offshore. In the case of Bluefin tuna, three farms are situated approximately 2 km offshore and another two operators utilize an Aquaculture Zone 6 km off the southeastern coast. Another Aquaculture Zone towards the north of Malta is being planned. In 2013, European seabass and Gilthead seabream production was 2 677 tonnes whilst the Atlantic bluefin tuna production was 6 123 tonnes (NSO, 2014).
The national body for aquaculture research is the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre (MAR). A pilot marine hatchery within the Centre began operating again in November 2005 focusing on research into aquaculture species diversification. This was done in collaboration with a private company through the Amberjack Project, a joint venture agreement for the study of spawning and juvenile rearing methods for Seriola dumerili. This collaboration is ongoing until 2016.
Apart from this research, MAR also formed part of the Bluefin tuna EU funded research project TRANSDOTT, a project under the 7th Framework Programme for the domestication of Bluefin tuna. Malta looks forward with more plans for research and development, with species diversification for marine aquaculture as a priority.
There is strong competition for space and resources due to the small size of Malta. Environmental issues take priority and an environmental impact assessment is required before aquaculture development is initiated. A long term Aquaculture Strategy for Malta has been finalized in 2014 and this promotes research leading towards a diverse increased sustainable aquaculture production, environmental monitoring programs and offshore aquaculture technology.
Aquaculture was introduced into Malta following the establishment of the National Aquaculture Centre (NAC) in 1988 when basic rearing techniques were demonstrated for hatching and rearing of tilapia (Oreochromis spilurus and Oreochromis mossambicus x Oreochromis niloticus) in seawater (SIPAM, 2002). In the early 1990s, commercial fish farms started producing European seabass (D. labrax) and gilthead seabream (S. aurata). Various types of ongrowing cages are used, namely Dunlop and Farmocean cages for offshore sites and Floatex and Kames cages for inshore nursery sites. At the turn of the century, Maltese companies showed interest in farming the Atlantic bluefin tuna (T. thynnus thynnus), in large circular floating offshore cages (SIPAM, 2002).
The NAC developed its own pilot marine hatchery for the production of gilthead seabream and European seabass fingerlings in 1992. The initial target was for an annual production of 400 000 juveniles (2 g in weight) and this was achieved in 1994 (NAC, 1998). During the following period, from 1995 to 1998, production increased to 1 500 000 fingerlings as the NAC improved its hatchery technology.
In 2001 the National Aquaculture Centre was re-named the Malta Centre for Fisheries Sciences (MCFS) and offered expertise to the regulatory bodies and technical support to the local industry. Today the centre focuses mainly on aquaculture research and is known as the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre (MAR). MAR is the only research facility on Malta for hatching marine species for mariculture. Many improvements have been made in the marine hatchery to accommodate trials for amberjack and Atlantic bluefin tuna larvae. The main stream of research focuses on the diversification of species to be produced for mariculture, with success obtained on a national level with the Amberjack Project and on an EU level with the TRANSDOTT project for both the amberjack and Atlantic bluefin tuna.
The primary activities of MAR are:
The aquaculture sector generates a total of 964 full-time equivalent jobs (FTE), including 197 FTE employed in the aquaculture sector itself and an additional 767 FTE jobs generated by way of indirect and induced economic impacts. These jobs were mainly concentrated in the wholesale and retail trade, transport and communication, financial intermediation and manufacturing sectors (Applied Economics Consulting Ltd., 2009).
Almost all staff employed in the industry are Maltese nationals. Around 93 percent of aquaculture employees are currently men, around 60 percent of whom are aged 34 years or younger. Much of the workforce has a background in the fisheries sector, and is thus well suited to the nature of the work. There are currently no formal vocational training opportunities for aquaculture in Malta, and the provision of such training is considered highly desirable for the safe and efficient development of the aquaculture industry in Malta.
Divers are essential for routine maintenance, installation and various husbandry operations. There are no legal requirements for professional diving qualifications in Malta at present, but the introduction of legislation, based on that employed by most other EU member states, can be expected in the future. The industry is represented by the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP), whose members include all five tuna farms, and which represents the interests of tuna farming in the media and with regard to regulatory matters. P2M, which only farms bass and bream, is not a member.
All farming systems used around Malta are made of floating cages. Cage systems are now almost all circular HDPE plastic pipe as widely used elsewhere and have proved to be extremely robust and cost effective. Most losses that have occurred have been due to the impact of excessive currents on cage nets and moorings. There are five operational farms, of which two farms have inshore nursery sites for juvenile seabream, seabass, meagre and amberjacks. The tuna farms are offshore, approximately 1–2 km off the coast towards the north or on the southeast side of the main island in approximately 50 m deep sea. One tuna farm is situated 6 km off the southeast coast in waters around 90 m deep. There is a pilot hatchery on land within the MAR. This pilot hatchery produces seabream, seabass, meagre and amberjack juveniles through research trials. Following the successful TRANSDOTT project, Maltese companies are pursuing egg collection and larval rearing attempts with planned projects for the production of juveniles of this highly priced species.
The species cultured on a purely aquaculture basis in Malta are the European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax), the gilthead seabream (Sparus aurata), the meagre (Argyrosomus regius) and on a smaller scale the amberjack (Seriola dumerili). The fattening of Atlantic bluefin tuna (T. thynnus thynnus) is a capture-based aquaculture whereby tuna of various sizes, usually ranging from 80-250 kg are caught by purse seine fishing nets and fattened for about six months until export. All European seabass and gilthead seabream fingerlings are generally imported from approved hatcheries in Italy, France or Spain.
In the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, large cages with a diameter of 50 m and depth of 30 m are usually used. A few 90 m diameter cages have also been used since 2003. The 50 m diameter cages are Spanish, Italian or English offshore cages which are moored in waters 50-60 m deep approximately 1 to 2 kilometres from the coastline.
The tuna farming technology used in Malta is similar to that of other Mediterranean countries, namely Spain, Croatia, Turkey and Italy. Generally, fish are caught in international waters by purse seines during the months of June and July. They are then transferred to the cages where they are fed on raw fish and squid, depending on farm management and requirements. The fish are kept in the cages until they are harvested and exported between October and January as fresh or frozen products to Asian markets (mainly Japan). The size of the exported fish depends on the size of fish caught from the wild and generally ranges between 80 and 250 kg. As all farmed tuna are caught from the wild, the sustainability of fish stocks and coastal ecosystems is a matter of concern for various bodies. Assessments carried out by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) indicate a strong decline in the spawning stock biomass since 1993 (FAO/GFCM/ICCAT, 2005). Strict control measures have been implemented recently and quotas have been established for each country. This creates the need for more research whereby Atlantic bluefin tuna juveniles will be produced for aquaculture and the pressure on the wild stocks will be relieved.
Local fish consumption varies throughout the year. Total annual consumption of European seabass and gilthead seabream is around 90-100 tonnes. Consumption trends depend on the availability of fresh substitutes which are imported at cheap prices, or locally caught fish at favourable low prices, for example dolphin fish Coryphaena hippurus, Bluefin tuna or swordfish Xiphias gladius. Gilthead seabream is usually sold locally at around EUR 4.50-5.00 per kilo. European seabass prices are slightly higher but it is purchased in smaller quantities. The consumer acknowledges that farmed fish is very fresh due to the fact that it is locally grown and slaughtered and there is a constant supply throughout the year. Farmed fish provides the consumer with a very good quality product at a reasonable price.
With regard to exports, European seabass and gilthead seabream are exported whole mainly to central and north Italy, the main buyers being large supermarkets or hypermarket chains, as well as large wholesalers. The price mark-up on the CIF Italy (Cost, Insurance & Freight) price varies according to the clients, but usually varies from 8 to 12 percent. The client will, in turn, mark up the price by an additional 15-20 percent. All European seabass and gilthead seabream production plants have an EU export code to accompany goods. Existing legislation includes Commission Decision 94/356/EC of 20/05/1994, giving detailed rules on the application of the Council Directive 91/493/EEC, as regards to health checks on fishery products. There is also local subsidiary legislation SL231.43 (LN 255 of 2000) on fish packing and processing.
In the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, the slaughtered fish are exported fresh or frozen to Asian markets, mainly Japan. The fresh product is exported on ice and transported by air, while the frozen product is slaughtered and cut up before being frozen at -80 °C and subsequently transported by sea.
Fish farming has a positive effect on the employment of unskilled and skilled labour, earns the country hard currency from exports and there is a high local value added resulting from a net cash inflow. A report commissioned by the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers states that aquaculture production in Malta is a significant sector with a turnover of about EUR 128 million (Applied Economics Consulting Ltd., 2009).
With regard to possible future outputs, analysis of economic impacts was made for three different scenarios for both tuna and Closed Cycle Species (CCS). The analysis of the CCS scenarios assuming 50 percent amberjack or Bluefin tuna produced from a hatchery, illustrates that at the high production scenario of 10 000 tonnes per annum and a hatchery producing 20 million juveniles p.a., the sector could generate a total GVA of EUR 46 millions and support direct employment of 464 employees and indirect and induced employment of 442.
The high production scenario for tuna of 7 000 tonnes p.a. (in line with 2007 volumes) indicates that the sector could generate a total GVA of EUR 73 millions and support direct employment of 233 employees and indirect and induced employment of 804.
The Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, within the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change (MSDEC) regulates and administers the aquaculture industries and is directly responsible for issuing aquaculture permits. MAR is the research body within the Aquaculture Directorate, mainly focusing on species diversification and providing technical advice and assistance to local companies and foreign interested parties.
The current basis for aquaculture legislation in Malta is the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 2001. This act includes the requirement of a permit for the installation or operation of an aquaculture establishment, granted by the Director responsible for fisheries management subject to a list of conditions established with the consultation of the Chairman of the Malta Maritime Authority (MMA) and the Chairman of MEPA with regard to the allocation of ‘an appropriate site for the aquaculture establishment’.
This act, therefore, formally lays out a requirement for consultation between the Director of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Malta Maritime Authority and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority for the granting of an aquaculture permit.
Aquaculture development is regulated by Part IX of Chapter 425, Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 2001 and by subsidiary legislation (Aquaculture Operations Regulations) 2004 and Aquaculture Regulations 36.34 (LN73 of 1990) issued under the Prevention of Disease Ordinance Chapter 36 and covered by Chapter 437 Veterinary Services Act and Animal Welfare Act Chapter 439. The issue of operating permits is the direct responsibility of the Agriculture and Fisheries Regulation Division. Research and Development falls under the Rural Development and Aquaculture Division.
Development in aquaculture both on land and offshore necessitates a development permit as established by the Development Planning Act Chapter 356 and its subsidiary legislation. Aquaculture is also subject to environmental regulations published under the Environment Protection Act 2001. Since accession to the European Union in 2004, Malta has been obliged to implement all current EU directives concerning aquaculture regulation
The local legislation directly affecting the aquaculture industry is the responsibility of the following Departments and Authorities:
MAR within the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA), is the only Government aquaculture research centre in Malta. Applied research focuses on species diversification targeting the greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili) and Atlantic bluefin tuna (T. thynnus thynnus).
The Amberjack Project is a joint venture between MAR and a Maltese private company. It started in 2006, one year after the first amberjack eggs were obtained from broodstock reared in cages. Various advances have been made during the past three years and spawning and egg collection have become an annual certainty. Larval survival still needs some improvements and a maximum of 80 000 fingerlings were produced in 2012. The management and staff have the ambitious aim to produce a better survival and larger numbers before the project comes to an end in 2016.
Atlantic bluefin tuna:
Between the years 2012 and 2014, Malta was a partner in the TRANSDOTT project, a 7th Framework EU project. This project involved 8 partners from a total of five countries: Germany, Israel, Italy, Malta and Spain. The aim of the project was to advance technologies developed in the previous SELF-DOTT project and Japan, and implementing them into a working protocol for the industry itself. Starting in April 2012, with the management of an already established BFT broodstock in a SME in Malta, a total of about 50 million viable eggs were collected in June 2013 (ca. 10 million eggs) and June 2014 (ca. 40 million eggs), with a maximum of 6.2 million eggs collected in 1 day in June 2014. This success was mainly due to a Korean ‘trawl net-type’ egg collector installed in June 2013, but improvement in the broodstock diet and close monitoring of ambient water parameters also played a very important role. A total of around 35 million eggs (8.6 million in 2013 and 26 million eggs in 2014) were shipped to 3 industrial hatcheries for rearing. A number of fertilized eggs were also shipped to research facilities, mainly for trial testing of enriched live prey.
One of the main drawbacks at the rearing stage was predation by alien species. Trials for the elimination by floatation of such species were conducted in 2014, however more improvement is needed. Promising results were obtained from a 200 cubic metre mesocosm in Malta, were survival of around 500 fingerlings were recorded over 30 days after hatching, in 2014. Even more successful and promising results were obtained from a Spanish partner that managed to produce around 5 000 juvenile BFT in 2014. These were also transferred to sea-cages for grow-out. This success in mainly due to a copepod production. Different stages of copepods, along with yolk-sac larvae, were used as the main dietary backbone for the rearing stages in Spain. Future trials are planned by private companies in Malta, utilizing copepod technology for the production of higher numbers of Bluefin tuna juveniles.
Meagre eggs were spawned and hatched in the MAR hatchery from broodstock that was reared from eggs that had been imported from Italy for hatching and juvenile production. Around 60 000 juveniles were produced and successfully reared to market size in cages. Further trials are planned on the spawning and production of juveniles of this species.
Some groupers are being reared within the broodstock facilities inside Fort San Lucjan. These will be grown to broodstock for spawning trials.
Seabream and seabass:
Various experiments are carried out with seabass and seabream. The main aim of producing seabass and seabream is to carry out trials on enrichment products and feeds, while training and improving staff. The hatchery at MAR is capable of producing viable eggs of these species.
White Seabream (Diplodus sargus):
In 2011 and 2012 some fertilised eggs were obtained and trials were carried out on juveniles produced. Problems remain with slow grow-out of these fish in cages.
Broodstocks of the Purple Sea Urchin, Paracentrotus lividus, and the sea cucumbers, Holoturia polii and Stichopus regalis are being established. A few batches of fertilized eggs, from the former two species, were collected; and juveniles were also reared in 2013 and 2014. Various dietary trials, for good gonad quality, are also carried carried out for P. lividus. Various experiments on stocking density and growth are carried out by university students.
Turtle Rehabilitation Unit:
A number of injured turtles are brought to MAR by fishermen. These turtles are housed at MAR within the Turtle Rehabilitation Unit, where they are cured. After receiving the necessary treatment, and having undergone rehabilitation, the centre in conjunction with the local NGO Nature Trust and the Nature Protection Unit of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, release the turtles back to their natural environment from a sandy beach. Prior to their release, these turtles are tagged so that useful information on their growth and migration patterns could be obtained in the event of recapture.
Conservation and Education:
The Killifish Conservation Project is a Joint research project between MAR, Nature Trust Malta (NTM) and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA). This focuses on the Mediterranean killifish, (Aphanius fasciatus) and aims to raise awareness and educate the public on the need to preserve the species and its habitat. In addition, it aims to secure a viable population in captivity and effectively manage a Natura 2000 site where one of the endangered populations is found.
The University of Malta offers an undergraduate degree course in science subjects, with some credits based on aquaculture, but there are no degrees specifically on aquaculture. The Malta College for Art Science and Technology (MCAST) organizes B.Tech Level two to level five courses on fish husbandry that include units on aquaculture and fish biology. A number of local and foreign students on all levels, ranging from diploma to doctorate level carry out their research at the MAR. Foreign students are mainly from Italy and Germany.
During the last decade, there has been a definite shift of cultured species from European seabass and gilthead seabream to Atlantic bluefin tuna. The Ministry for Sustainable Development, Environment and Climate Change encourages research into species diversification through MAR and hopes to develop breeding and rearing techniques of the greater amberjack and Atlantic bluefin tuna among other “new” species for aquaculture.
Various issues have arisen due to the conflict between tourism and aquaculture operations due to the severe lack of space around the Maltese islands. The Aquaculture Strategy identifies the way forward for this sector for a sustainable aquaculture industry, through better management practice and a shift to the rearing of more closed cycle species. The aquaculture strategy also emphasizes the need for the identification of environmental carrying capacities for each individual site.
Due to the conflicts, aquaculture developments require appropriate environmental assessment. The preliminary studies required are those associated with the Environmental Impact Assessment, including benthic surveys, and the collection of data regarding environmental parameters such as water quality and sediment analysis. The impact assessment process also evaluates the quality and magnitude of the expected environmental impact. The impact assessment outlines the environmental monitoring required. This includes monitoring of water quality and sediments, benthic flora and fauna and visual inspection of the seabed under the cages (using video). Monitoring takes place at both cage and control sites.
Other forms of monitoring, video monitoring or monitoring of the sea-grass Posidonia oceanica parameters, are carried out in areas which are identified as being particularly sensitive. The objective of the monitoring programme is to minimize adverse ecological changes and related economic consequences resulting from water use, land use, discharge of effluents, use of drugs and chemicals and other related activities. The inputs of chemicals hazardous to human health and the environment are regulated and need to be registered and monitored during each operation. Safe, effective and minimal use of therapeutics, hormones, drugs, antibiotics and other disease control chemicals should be ensured. These programmes have to be approved by the Environment, Fisheries and Veterinary Authorities, according to the remits of the relative agencies. Aquaculture developments must comply with all local, regional and global management systems aimed at the conservation of species.
Applied Economics Consulting Ltd. 2009. The Economic Impact of Aquaculture Activity on the Maltese Economy. 32 pp.
FAO/GFCM/ICCAT. 2005 . Report of the third meeting of the ad hoc GFCM/ICCAT Working Group on Sustainable Tuna Farming/Fattening Practices in the Mediterranean. Malta National Report Survey form on current bluefin tuna farming practices in the Mediterranean. 10pp.
MAR. 2010. Malta Aquaculture Research Centre. Leaflet
MCFS. 2006 . Malta Centre for Fisheries Sciences. Data estimates compiled directly from farms. Fisheries Conservation and Control Division, Malta. 2006
MRAE. 2004 . Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Fisheries Conservation and Control Division, Annual Report. Malta 2004. 12pp.
MRAE. 2005 . Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Fisheries Conservation and Control Division, Annual Report. Malta 2005. 20pp.
NAC. 1998 . National Aquaculture Centre, Malta. Brochure. 15pp.
NSO MALTA. 17 November 2014. News release 217/2014. Aquaculture: 2013
SIPAM. 1999 . SIPAM Annual Report, Malta.
SIPAM. 2002 . SIPAM Annual Report, Malta.