The latter half of the Maltese summer is characterised by the long-awaited season of this much-loved fish.
If festas and fireworks are the soundtrack to a Maltese summer, then fish is the final ingredient that completes our hot, sunny months by the sea, and lampuki are the plat du jour from mid-August onwards.
The ever-popular delicious dolphin fish, also known as dorado or mahi-mahi, has been a staple of the Maltese summer menu for generations, as we make the most of its short season. But lampuki are not just an ingredient, they represent a long tradition deeply associated with Malta’s small-scale fishing sector.
Preparing for lampuki season
For the local fishermen, lampuki season is a very special time of year. Jason Grixti, 39, from the fishing village of Marsaxlokk on Malta’s southern coast, has been a fisherman all his adult life, and comes from a long line of fishermen. We caught up with him as he was preparing for the launch of this year’s lampuki season.
“The season is only two or three months long, but catching the fish requires passion and dedication, and it’s ultimately very rewarding,” explains Jason, who has practically grown up on a luzzu watching his late father, grandfather and uncles fishing. He learned the tricks of the trade from his father and grandfather, but he admits that others can only teach you the theory of fishing. “At the end of the day it depends on your own ability. You have to make it on your own. You really learn by doing and then their words of advice start making sense,” he adds.
“The season is only two or three months long, but catching the fish requires passion and dedication, and it’s ultimately very rewarding.”
The method of fishing for lampuki is a very particular one steeped in tradition, and has remained practically unchanged for centuries. Fishermen cast fish aggregating devices (FADs), known in Maltese as kannizzati, which consist of a polystyrene float anchored by a heavy piece of limestone weighing no less than 70kg. Palm fronds are attached to the float to attract the lampuki.
Jason points out that fishing for lampuki is “one of the nicest fishing methods”. “Catching lampuki is a challenge but it is such a nice method. You see the fish before catching it, it comes up to you and greets you,” explains Jason, rather poetically. Lampuki tend to seek shelter, and the palm fronds provide that perfectly, thus luring whole shoals together around the kannizzati. Once the fish are congregated there, the fishermen cast their nets.
The season kicks off in style just a few days before the 15th of August, when the 130 vessels licensed to fish for lampuki set off all together at midnight, mostly from Marsaxlokk and Mgarr in Gozo, to cast their kannizzati. At Marsaxlokk, the whole operation does not start before Holy Mass is celebrated on the waterfront by the local parish priest, who then boards a small kajjik and sails out to the middle of the bay to bless every single luzzu and its crew.
The fishermen would have spent the whole year working on their FADs, and one week before the launch of the season, they cut the palm fronds and tie them to the kannizzati. By the time all the fishing boats have cast their kannizzati, the entire perimeter of the Maltese Islands is one giant lampuki trap. Jason himself will be casting some 120 FADs, and it will take him almost a whole day to complete the task. Others might need up to 30 hours if they have more FADs.
Then the waiting game begins. Jason explains that the fishermen wait for exceptionally calm weather in order to catch lampuki, as rough seas disturb the shoals. Lampuki catches have been in steady decline over the past few years, dropping by as much as 60per cent. The season officially lasts till the end of the year, weather permitting, and can be extended by one month in case of bad weather.
It is not just the fishermen who would have been looking forward to the lampuki season, but also consumers! Maltese lampuki are not exported, as the demand from the local market is so high, although when the catch is low, supply stocks have to be supplemented by imports from Tunisia and Spain, which affect prices and local fishermen’s incomes.
Supporting small-scale fishing
Dr Alicia Said, Post-doctoral Fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland explained the challenges facing small-scale fisheries in Malta. Through the organisation Too Big To Ignore - Global Partnership for Small-Scale Fisheries Research, Alicia was recently involved in the launch of the Malta Small-Scale Fisheries Network, a new initiative bringing together the fishing community and other stakeholders to keep the sector afloat. The Network was brought together by the Centre for Agribusiness, Aquatics and Animal Sciences within the Malta Centre for Arts Science and Technology to discuss possible strategies for the development of small-scale fisheries within the framework of the blue economy.
The daughter of a fisherman from Gnejna, and herself a keen fisher, Alicia has dedicated her academic career to supporting small-scale fisheries. She has witnessed first hand the decline in the lampuki catch and the effect this has on fishermen’s livelihood. “I have been on a couple of fishing trips going out around 70 miles offshore and we barely caught three boxes of lampuki. You can imagine all that fuel, and the cost of employing a crew of three or four men, all for just three boxes,” remarks Alicia.
She lists several causes that may be contributing to the decline in lampuki catches. “Some fishers say it is because the number of tuna has increased, although this is not clear. One of the biggest challenges for fishers is the fact that since the introduction of quotas for tuna, they have seen a decline in profitability. When previously a fisher’s income was split between a good tuna and swordfish season and a good lampuki season, now it is based mostly on the lampuki season, so if that is not good, it raises a big question about the fisher’s profitability for that year,” explains Alicia.
She also points out that small recreational boats can cause havoc with the catch. “One of the biggest challenges for fishers is recreational or holiday fishermen who go on the FADs and catch a single lampuka. Just by catching that one fish, they would have disrupted the entire shoal, and it can take days before the shoal regroups under the FAD,” she says. Fishers are also having to deal with the outcome of a pest which has decimated local palm trees, thus affecting the supply of those all-important palm fronds used in their traditional kannizzati.
Alicia calls for more studies to be carried out to analyse the reasons behind the constant decline in the numbers of lampuki over the past years. "It would be interesting to understand if there is a correlation between the increase in tuna as a top predator and the decline in lampuki. Of course, such a study needs to be conducted at the Mediterranean level and include neighbouring EU and non-EU countries," she adds.
How to eat lampuki
Of all the fish the Maltese consume (and they consume a lot of it), lampuki stand out as a perennial favourite, as they taste amazing whichever way they're cooked. Jason the fisherman has his preferred method of cooking his beloved catch: “Fried with caper sauce, of course.”
One of the most popular ways to cook lampuki is in a hearty pie encased in a flaky, buttery shortcrust pastry. But the fish is a versatile ingredient, and you’re quite likely to find it used as a pizza topping, in canapés, as appetisers as well as baked, grilled, barbecued, cured and in a hearty aljotta fish soup. The taste of Maltese summer on a plate.
Any restaurant worth its salt will feature fresh lampuki on its menu, but arguably some of the best dishes can be sampled in Marsaxlokk, where the fish goes direct from the fishing boats across the road to the kitchens, and then straight onto your plate!