MALTA DIARY: Malta’s key to Japanese hearts – fresh tuna and sushi
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There are not many countries that Malta exports to more than it imports. There are not many countries either that export more to Japan than they import. Malta is one of those countries. Yes, and Malta does import Japanese cars and yes, Malta imports loads of electronic equipment from Japan – yet its exports to Japan exceed all these!
And what is the key product that virtually crosses the world from the Central Mediterranean to the Far East – fresh Bluefin Tuna!
It is said the key to the heart is through the stomach, and Malta has found a way into Japanese hearts by providing the love of their gourmet palate – fresh tuna and tuna sushi.
Last year, Malta’s Office for Statistics reported that Malta’s exports to Japan topped €141 million, a figure that is double Malta’s imports from the Japanese market. Of this figure, tuna exports reached €124 million, the remainder also mainly consisting of fish.
The unknowing reader may conclude that Malta’s fisherfolk lead a busy life, which they do and particularly at this time of the year as they scour the sea for thousands of Dolphin Fish, also known as the Yellow Dorado (well-known in Maltese as ‘the lampuka’), much sought after by the Maltese and visiting tourists alike and particularly those familiar with Malta.
Competition is so intense that territorial waters are segmented in packages annually drawn by lots and jealously guarded, particularly against incursions by Italian, Sicilian, Spanish and Tunisian fishermen and head-to-head bust-ups are frequent and all fishing boats carry armed rifles!
There are some tuna catches from open fishing, strictly by national quota that has to be equally strictly observed. However, the bulk of tuna exports, and indeed other fresh fish come from a number of fish farms that employ a considerable number of employees, including divers and boatmen.
These aquaculture farms started in the late 1980s and continued to increase throughout the 1990s with half-a-dozen or so specialising in Bluefin Tuna. Normal fish farms specialise in the European Sea Bass and Amberjacks.
Their progress has not been without problems. These farms consist of a series of cages anchored to the sea bottom in their consigned territory. In the early days they were experimental trial and error and when sea conditions worsened, thousands of fish would float out of the open cage tops and provide an enormous bonanza for amateur fishermen with their rods and in their thousands stretched along the coast.
This came to an end with greater refinement. There was however another problem. Fish feed consists of tons of compressed bales of dead fish preserved in a slimy oil and naturally the slimy oil would drift out of the cages and pollute the surrounding sea and when the sea current and winds were inland the slime drifted into swimming bays.
Naturally, the public created an uproar of protest and into the new Millennium these farms came under greater scrutiny by the authorities, particularly those authorities responsible for the environment.
A few years back some farms were charged with having extended their cages without authorisation and were asked to remove the non-authorised additions, while all farms were ordered to relocate further out to sea.
However, the problem with tuna farms continued with occasional outflows of slime on the sea surface, slime that entraps other flotsam and floats inland.
Now, all tuna farms have been ordered to surround their cages with special booms to trap the slime outflow and owners are obliged to collect the slime 24/7.
The tuna farms are located some five kilometres to the North and Southeast of Malta and their operators have spent over €1 million to surround their cages with booms.
Besides greater environmental cleanliness, there is also an upside because the oily slime collected is in turn being exported to Italy where it is used in the production of fish oil!
At this stage in time the current tuna crop is being fattened in preparation for mass export to Japan where traditional auction houses, mostly in Tokyo, will auction off consignments to processors.
This much-sought product has made Malta popular in Japan and has aroused the curiosity of many to get to know more about Malta and in getting to know more, a greater fascination in Maltese history and heritage of one of the world’s smallest nations.
Tourism from Japan to Malta has been rising annually and there are now a number of Japanese-Maltese commercial and other associations working in close cooperation. There is also an aquaculture agreement between the two countries based on environmental awareness and the need to maintain seas free from pollution.
“Don’t buy fish when they are still swimming in an open sea”
An equivalent of not to buy chickens before they are hatched because you never know if they will hatch and by the same measure you cannot be certain of whether the fish will be caught or not.