Two Maltese criminal investigations into the racket of tuna illegally farmed in Malta are still in the early stages and a third ‘audit’ by the European Commission remains in progress, The Sunday Times of Malta is informed.

The Maltese probes – parallel investigations by the police and Magistrate Gabriella Vella, who according to sources travelled to Madrid last week – were triggered by the findings of Operation Tarantelo, the Spanish-led investigation that also involved Europol.

Operation Tarantelo has so far revealed that an estimated 2.5 million kilograms of tuna, worth around €12 million, was being smuggled from Malta to Spain annually. 

The Spanish Grupo Ricardo Fuentes e Hijos owns the two outfits at the two ends of the smuggling route, according to information from the investigation: illegal tuna from Malta’s Mare Blu Farm was being supplied to another Fuentes Group fish supplier company in Spain. The tuna was then resupplied to fishmongers and other sales points throughout Europe.

The racket is believed to have gone on for a number of years. Spanish investigators only sniffed out the case after an outbreak of clusters of food poisoning led to investigations into the supply chain of tuna. 

“This investigation shows that illegal tuna can also be a danger to human health,” said Alessando Buzzi, a regional specialist on Bluefin tuna who works for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). “Now we have to make sure that this illegal trade is eliminated to protect not just the environment, but also consumers.”

Although Operation Tarantelo pinned Mare Blu Farm, one of Malta’s five tuna farms, as the source of the illegal tuna, sources privy to the investigation by Maltese police said that another Maltese farm, whose name is being withheld, has been mentioned peripherally in the Spanish investigative report.

Charlon Gouder, CEO of the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers, maintained that none of the four tuna farms that are members of the federation – Mare Blu Farm is not a member – have been investigated.

Police sources said that the investigation by the Maltese police is still in its infancy.  

Monitoring of tuna farming

The Sunday Times of Malta has managed to chart the modus operandi of the tuna racket.

The Mediterranean tuna fishery is probably the most controlled fishery in the world. Catch quotas are imposed on fishing nations around the Mediterranean, which fish for tuna either by hooks attached to surface longlines or purse seine nets that supply live fish to the tuna farms.

We have to make sure that this illegal trade is eliminated to protect not just the environment, but also consumers

Monitoring takes place most intensely on the purse seiners and the transfer to the so-called ‘tuna ranches’ where tuna are fattened and eventually slaughtered. Two observers, one from the country of origin of the purse seiner and another from the country of destination for fattening, are stationed on purse seiners during fishing runs.

As soon as tuna is scooped in the huge nets, a report is transmitted to the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA), which deploys a patrol boat with inspectors on board. EFCA inspectors then monitor the tuna during transfer to carrier cages, estimating the number and total weight of tuna, inputting the information into an electronic database and tagging an electronic catch certificate.

The tuna is then slowly towed to the farms in the carrier cages for fattening. It usually takes weeks to reach Malta-based farms.

Then the transfer of the fish from cages to pens is filmed and monitored by inspectors from EFCA, the European Commission, the Maltese Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, and ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna). The estimated weight of the tuna is compared to the estimates at the point of catch, and, if any discrepancies are found, excess tuna is released back in the wild.

Then, throughout the fattening period in the summer, department personnel also conduct inspections. This involves, among other things, random inspections by divers swimming among the tuna in the pens, estimating the number of tuna and cross-checking with relevant catch and stocking documentation. 

This is where the department has been particularly deficient. According to a report by the National Audit Office published last year, the enforcement unit with the department is understaffed by a tally of 65 personnel. Environment Minister José Herrera talked about this in Parliament last week, maintaining that the government has been unable to fill vacancies, especially divers, and that the department is looking into outsourcing some operations. 

Asked for additional specifics, a spokesperson for Dr Herrera wrote that “the department is drawing up an action plan related to the recommendations made by NAO including that specifically related to a review of existing resources. In the meantime action will be taken to beef up staff but the process will be a dynamic one to be able to align with changes in regulations at ICCAT level.”

Now it is also known that Mare Blu Farm allegedly got away with systematic overstocking by illegally caught tuna. The farm has a stocking quota of 3,000 tons and, if estimates of Operation Tarantelo are correct, it suggests that the farm may have been stocking an additional 2,500 tons of illegally caught tuna.

Illegal tuna is sourced from undeclared catches. It could not be established whether Operation Tarantelo pinpointed any of the vessels involved in illegal fishing, or how the illicitly caught tuna was spirited to the farm in Malta.

The Japanese connection

Japan is the chief destination market for farmed tuna, which has the right consistency of fat to meat ratio that is highly valued in sushi and sashimi. In fact around 70 per cent of tuna fattened in the Mediterranean is exported to Japan, where it fetches prices so high that Malta’s legal tuna industry now generates more than €120 million euros.

In the modus operandi uncovered by Operation Tarantelo, it was estimated that for almost every consignment shipped to Japan an equal amount from the illegally sourced stock was being shipped to Spain.

These parallel, duplicate shipments of equal quantities made use of duplicate paperwork – only the destinations were different. The certificates attached to the consignment dispatched to Japan would be genuine; photocopies of the certificates would then also provide cover for the illegally-caught and farmed tuna dispatched to Spain.

Although some evidence suggests that some shipments might have been transported by seacraft to ports in France and perhaps also Italy, an unspecified proportion of shipments were put on trucks that boarded ferries of Virtu to Sicily and Grimaldi to unspecified ports, then making their way overland to their Spanish destination.

Improved controls needed

Although the WWF’s Alessando Buzzi said it was not certain at this point whether France and Italy were involved in some illegal fishing of tuna uncovered in Operation Tarantelo, or were simply waypoints along the smuggling route from Malta to Spain, the glare of the investigations is now mainly fixed on Malta.

“A national audit in Malta showed that there are systematic deficiencies in the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture,” Mr Buzzi said. “One of the big problems in Malta appears to be deficiencies in human resources.”

Some systems of enforcement did work. It was mentioned in Parliament last May that 800 tons of tuna had been released after it was found to be in excess of the recorded catch statistics.

A source in the fisheries department said that the tally of tuna released by the department in 2017 and 2018 now stands at 2,000 tons (including the 800 tons mentioned in Parliament). These were found to be in excess of the catch estimates at the point of transfer into the fattening cages.

Unresolved questions remain about whether these fish might have been picked up from undeclared fishing throughout the weeks-long journey to Malta, or were simply variations between catch estimates and more accurate estimates at the point of transfer to farms.

In conversations with Mr Buzzi, it emerged that a ploy among an unspecified proportion of farms in the Mediterranean is to overinflate the fishes’ growth rates during fattening to account for unrealistic increases in the cumulative weight of tuna held in pens at slaughter.

“Some farms declare growth rates of 76 per cent in three months of ranching,” he said. “This is not credible from a biological perspective. Tuna only grow by about a third of their weight at the fattening stage, and such cases are potential indicators for extra fish introduced in the cages illegally before harvesting.”

Mr Buzzi was talking generally about stratagems in tuna farms in the Mediterranean and did not specifically implicate any of the Maltese tuna farms in these ruses. Yet this is something that was tackled in Malta in 2017: the normal growth rate of tuna has been enshrined in Maltese rules to preempt any unrealistic inflation of growth figures. This, Dr Herrera’s spokesperson said, “was introduced by Malta to ensure a higher degree of control.”

WWF, together with a raft of other international environment organisations including Greenpeace and Oceana, last November wrote to the European Commission asking for an investigation into illegalities in tuna farming. Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella wrote back in early January to announce that an investigation was under way.

Mr Buzzi said: “We are engaging with the European Commission to find and make public the potential malfunctioning of the fishery control systems. We also want the Commission to investigate potential misuse of European funds by tuna farms.”

A spokesperson for the European Commission told this newspaper that the Commission is “working” with EU countries and regulatory entities “to strengthen the traceability and control of live Bluefin tuna and to address the loopholes identified since the start of the Tarantelo operation.”

The spokesperson would not say when and if the report of the “audit” would be published.

Malta is the largest player in the tuna ranching industry – it has the largest tuna farming capacity – the other major tuna-farming countries are Spain, Turkey and Croatia. Italy and France have a preponderance of purse seiners that supply live tuna to the farms, including those in Malta. France never allowed tuna ranching or farming. Italy’s tuna farms all ceased operations several years ago.  

 “Tuna farms in Italy were forced to relocate far from shore because of environmental issues,” said Mr Buzzi, who is based in Rome. 

"This caused the cages to be battered in bad weather, allowing the tuna to escape and pushing up costs due to losses. An additional factor was falling tuna quotas. All of this made it too expensive and risky to install tuna-farming operations."

Mr Buzzi talks of additional controls that WWF advocates on tuna farms, including a ban on any unused portion of the quota being carried over to the following year, something the EU is implementing (see box).

“Controls have to be improved in the tuna farming industry,” he said. “Of course any controls would be futile if you have corruption.”

Commission tightens oversight

The European Commission has been in contact with the relevant authorities on the Tarantelo investigation and will continue to follow up the case with the Member States concerned, this newspaper has been told.

The Commission, a spokesman said, wanted to ensure that the authorities, fishing vessels and operators in these countries “abide by the rules set by the relevant Union legislation and international treaties”.

Using language that diplomatically sidesteps direct criticism of Malta’s systematic failures – the size of illicit trade in tuna uncovered in Malta is equivalent to a fifth of the yearly EU’s total tuna catch quota – the Commission talked of carrying out “regular audits in tuna farms across Europe”.

The new measures reinforce the control of live Bluefin tuna

“The European Commission takes the findings of these audits very seriously,” the spokesperson said in written replies. “We are now in the process of discussing corrective measures with member states authorities, including Maltese authorities.”

The statement goes into detail about regulation at national and EU level, defining the limits to the Commission’s legal reach over Member States and how it would be fulfilling its legal responsibilities.

The Commission, the spokesperson writes, is actively working with European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) and International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) to intensify scrutiny over live tuna fishery and farming operations. 

The spokesperson talks of new measures approved last November “that will enter into force on 21 June 2019 [at the beginning of the tuna fishing season]. The new measures reinforce the control of live Bluefin tuna, in particular in relation to intra-farm operations and the control of the carry-over of live tuna from one year to another.”

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