Inspectors found major irregularities in most of Malta’s tuna farms during routine checks last year but the operations were allowed to continue on, The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt.

Sources in the Fisheries Department said that inspections on the island’s tuna pens between September and October of 2018 uncovered how ranchers had concealed hundreds of extra fish, amounting to at least €4 million in illegal catches.

Some pens also had missing fish – believed to have been sold on the black market – while others had included tuna that was not at the right age, with inspectors suspecting the extent of the alleged irregularities could have stretched into several millions of euros more.  

Shortly after the department’s inspections, the police were roped in along with the Attorney General, triggering a magisterial inquiry into the suspected abuse in the sector. 

A senior source in the sector said that while the directorate had moved to suspend the licence of the tuna ranchers due to the extent of the abuse, a meeting had been called at the Environment Ministry during which the decision was taken to allow the farms to continue operating until the magisterial inquiry was completed.

Police sources said the inquiry by the courts was ongoing. Meanwhile, a department source said that other inspections carried out earlier in 2018 had found even more irregularities.

“In April we found fish farms that had landed tuna illegally, killing fish without inspectors present and without the necessary permits. We also found cages that were not meant to have fish in them, containing fish,” the source said. 

Why is the tuna sector under the spotlight?

The island’s tuna farming industry has been cast in the spotlight after an international investigation found that it was at the centre of an EU-wide black market operation. 

The months-long investigation by Spanish authorities, dubbed Operation Tarantelo, overseen by Europol, uncovered a network of shell companies and distributors that have allegedly been funnelling illegal tuna catches from Maltese waters and Malta-based fish farms to Spain via Italy and France.

Industry generates more than €120 million a year

A network of 79 individuals – none Maltese – have been arrested, and more than 80,000 kilos of illicit bluefin tuna were seized. 

Read: How the tuna racket operates

Phone intercepts between the now-suspended fisheries department head Andreina Fenech Farrugia and a Spanish tuna rancher operating in Malta also feature in the investigation.

Dr Fenech Farrugia has denied allegations that she had solicited bribes from the Spanish tuna kingpin in exchange for a lucrative increase in his tuna quotas. A separate magisterial inquiry is looking into these allegations.

How did the racket come to light?

The wide-ranging Spanish investigation started mostly by chance, after a string of food poisoning cases hit Spain back in 2016. Investigators discovered that the smuggled tuna behind the poisoning cases was not being treated with the minimum sanitary requirements and had dubious origins.

Two Malta-based ranchers have been named in the investigation – Mare Blue, owned by Spanish fishing giant Ricardo Fuentes and Sons, and Malta Fish Farms, owned by former Elbros owner Saviour Ellul.

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.

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 a year.

Spanish authorities believe that for almost every consignment shipped to Japan an equal amount from the illegally sourced stock was being shipped to Spain. Tests conducted on some of the irregular fish by Spain’s consumer rights authority found it contained a dangerously high level of histamines and had not been properly refrigerated during transportation. 

Spanish investigation sources have told The Sunday Times of Malta that the irregular tuna catches which originated from Italy and Malta would often start to decay en route but still get sold to consumers.

The main problem with supplying such tuna to the market is the dramatic increase in harmful histamines in the meat. Histamines can be toxic from 50 milligrams per kilo of product, although EU sanitary regulations allow an absolute maximum of 200 milligrams. 

The Spanish sources said consumers who ended up hospitalised in Seville ate tuna containing 2,584 milligrams per kilo. Histamines in these proportions can cause heart failure and lung disease, according to an expert report incorporated in the Spanish court case.

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