Some years ago, I encountered the curious world of maritime sociology. It transpired that maritime sociology covers a broad range of topics, fields and issues. These may intersect with other sociological areas such as family, employment and environment, but they may also have commonalities such as their interest in seaside and maritime areas.
Given that Malta is a small island in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, maritime sociology should be of interest to scholars and policymakers. Some facts can help. Malta’s territorial waters are 14 times bigger than the country’s land area, and the 25-nautical-mile Fisheries Management Zone is almost 40 times of the land area. Malta’s coastal zone is almost one fifth of the country’s surface area, and the coastline extends 273 kilometres.
According to Eurostat, Malta is a European high flier in terms of unloaded goods and international intra-EU marine transport. In the second half of 2016, Malta had 1.4 million kilograms of registered fish landings and Malta is also a Mediterranean protagonist in the fish farm and cruise liner industries.
A conference held in Malta some years ago featured statistics by the Net Mari Med project, which estimated that the marine and maritime sectors contribute to almost 15 per cent of Malta’s gross domestic product, and that this is expected to increase. Around 40,000 persons (25 per cent of Malta’s workforce) are employed in coastal tourism, water sports, fishing and fisheries, and Malta has one of the largest merchant ship registers in the world.
In this regard, the term blue economy has become mainstreamed in the vocabulary of institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank. It commonly refers to economic activity in the maritime sector, and it is often aligned with the concept of sustainable development, thus adding social and environmental dimensions to its meaning.
This can take us to the realm of sociology in general and Maltese sociology in particular. There are so many aspects of the marine sphere which are of interest.
For example, given that the maritime sectors provide so many job opportunities, it is important to verify who is being employed and under which conditions. Who works in bunkering, yachting, mooring? Are trade unions involved? How many workers are on fixed or temporary contracts? What are the nationalities of workers? How do they interact with each other and with significant others such as family members?
If we had to look at maritime communities such as fishermen, we can research their aspirations, challenges, opportunities and threats. In this regard, Alicia Said has researched the artisanal activities of small-scale fishermen. Others can research fishermen employed with big business companies. Malta also has its own fishing cooperative, fish shops, markets and other spin offs.
The bluefin tuna industry has recently captured the public imagination due to the slime issue. As early as the mid-1990s, the late Maggie Borg had already warned that this type of industry could have negative environmental impacts. I myself researched the political dimension of bluefin tuna fishing as part of my doctoral thesis.
As we all know, the sea around Malta has also become a main route of irregular migration. Maria Pisani and Mark Micallef carry out research in this area, which is characterised by a myriad of interactions involving death, new lives, exploitation, abuse, hope and fear, and by the governance of state and non-governmental organisations.
The politics of marine life is a fascinating area of research characterised by power networks, interests, and discourses. One can analyse the interaction of different stakeholders ranging from the European Union to environmental NGOs, and from fishermen’s representatives to the government.
One can analyse industries such as construction, cruising and fishing, but also micro-politics such as the occupation of space in public beaches. Think of the recent deckchairs and umbrella issue. Or the areas demarcated for swimmers and dogs. Think of communities who live near fishing areas and beaches from Marsaxlokk to Sliema.
Maritime sociology is ripe for growth and institutionalisation. Similar to other areas such as small island states, this could well prove to be a niche sector for Maltese social scientists with global impact.