A fish-farm scuba diver in Malta has received a payout of more than half-million euros after sustaining a serious spinal bend following a 71m air dive.
But the compensation has come 11 years after the man’s final dive – and now a local technical diver has alleged that the islands’ aquaculture industry has been allowed to operate for too long without adequate safety precautions in place.
Daniel Xerri also says that he has faced “stonewalling” tactics while trying to obtain information about the extent of the diver-safety problem.
“Does the clout of this industry allow it to operate with impunity?” the outspoken diver has asked, writing in the influential Times of Malta – as he did last month concerning the case of local rebreather diver Arthur Castillo, exonerated after being wrongly accused of manslaughter following the death of his buddy, as reported on Divernet.
In that instance Xerri had appeared to speak for many in Malta's diving community when he criticised the judicial system for allowing “expert” witnesses to testify beyond their level of competence.
The case of fish-farm diver Frederick Catania came to court after his dive in April 2012 resulted in spinal decompression illness, leaving him paralysed from the waist down and unable to work.
At the most recent court hearing this March, a medical expert concluded that Catania’s DCI had resulted not only from the final 71m dive but from serial deep dives carried out on behalf of his employer, Ta’ Mattew Fish Farm.
Suing for damages, Catania claimed that the operator had failed to ensure his safety on frequent dives to “extreme depths” to work on the fish-cages, having equipped him only for air rather than trimix diving.
Ta’ Mattew had countered that the diver had been contractually obliged to provide his own dive-gear, although it had been unable to provide the court with evidence of any such agreement.
On surfacing from the 71m dive Catania had been given the wrong form of oxygen, and the barge crew had taken some 90 minutes to transfer him from eight miles offshore to hospital, to the surprise of medical staff who had complained at the time about the lack of urgency.
Ruling in the diver’s favour this March, Judge Francesco Depasqule decided that because there had been no safety at work system nor protocols to follow in an emergency, Ta’ Mattew Fish Farm had been singularly responsible for the incident.
Catania was awarded 534,000 euros (about £470,000) in compensation plus interest accrued from November 2015, with court fees ordered to be paid by Ta’ Mattew. The award was based on income expectations adjusted for inflation over an estimated 25-year career.
During the hearing Stephen Muscat, clinical lead of the hyperbaric unit at Mater Dei hospital where Catania was treated, testified that fish-farm operators could ensure that their divers abided by safety standards only by appointing a diving supervisor to monitor all aspects of their work.
Over the past 10 years 307 divers have been treated at Mater Dei’s hyperbaric unit, says Daniel Xerri. The numbers treated for severe bends appeared to be on an upward trend, and he says that, according to diving-community sources, fish-farm divers form a substantial proportion of the 47% of casualties suffering from severe DCI, which typically results in spinal paralysis or inner-ear trauma.
Xerri, a senior lecturer at the University of Malta, says that he has submitted multiple requests to Mater Dei for information, yet it has refused to divulge the number of fish-farm divers treated in its hyperbaric unit.
And he questions an assertion by a health-ministry adviser that the hospital does not categorise patients by trade or profession. “A standard question that every patient is asked upon admission concerns their occupation,” says Xerri. “It is an essential part of a doctor’s history-taking from a patient.”
What Xerri describes as “stonewalling” by the hospital also makes it difficult to compare the severity of fish-farm divers’ cases with those of other divers. “Could it be that safeguarding the welfare of fish-farm divers is less important than protecting the reputation and economic interests of an industry that has long curried favour with the political class?” he asks.
Fish-farming in Malta generated almost 225 million euros in 2021, up 26% on the previous year. Xerri says that a Maltese Federation of Aquaculture Producers representative had “repeatedly boasted” of the industry’s high standards in a 2022 Times of Malta article, and had claimed that the federation expected “responsible behaviour” of its members.
“While vaguely referring to the industry ‘taking its responsibilities seriously’, he neglected to clarify how operators are seeking to secure the safety of their divers,” says Xerri.
“If operators truly want to engage in responsible behaviour in relation to the welfare of the divers who work on their fish farms, they need to ensure that stringent diving safety standards are put in place and their employees are provided with the training and resources to adhere to them.”
He suggests that a series of short courses on aspects of diving management such as hazard identification and risk assessment, offered by the Gozo-based Institute of Tourism Studies in conjunction with DAN Europe, would provide a useful starting point for aquaculture operators.