Rising demand and diminishing fish stocks are leading to increasing corruption in the fishing industry that is compounding the devastating effects of overfishing. The solution does not mainly lie in more rules and agreements but in a stronger political will to eradicate corruption by holding people accountable.

When, last October, Europol’s Operation Tarantelo resulted in 79 people being arrested, the local and international media gave graphic details of Malta’s involvement in the laundering of 80,000 kilos of illegally-caught Bluefin tuna that was double the annual quota of the legal trade in this prized fish. The operation was conducted by the Spanish Guardia Civil aided, among others, by the Maltese authorities.

However, it was only in the last few days that the Maltese government appeared to take concrete action when it suspended fisheries director general Andreina Fenech Farrugia. This followed the publication in Spain of transcripts of allegedly intercepted phone conversations between her and tuna impresario Josè Fuentes Garcia.

Environment Minister Josè Herrera confirmed the Maltese government would be cooperating with international organisations investigating the scandal.

Dr Fenech Farrugia denies any wrongdoing, insists she never received any money personally and even challenges the reliability of the transcripts.

The police and judicial authorities must be allowed to look into the allegations made and decide the way forward. However, many rightly wonder why the Maltese public gets to know about alleged cases of corruption from the media rather than from official channels.

This was the case with regard to an alleged money laundering scheme involving Venezuela by Pilatus Bank, the trafficking of visas for Libyans by a local government employee, alleged visa abuses by Malta’s consul in Algeria and the illegal trading of smuggled oil by Maltese nationals in the Mediterranean.

It is therefore not surprising that in many European countries the image of Malta is tainted with strong suspicions of corruption and weak law enforcement. Regulatory authorities and government officials are not appearing to be bulwarks against corrupt practices. This perception of tolerated abuse is not limited to the financial services industry and e-gaming. Malta’s high-risk economic model is being rendered even riskier by a lack of sufficient sources to investigate suspected crimes. 

It is hard to believe that this neglect is not the result of the government’s mindset to do as little as possible law enforcement lest it disturbs economic growth or worse. The government is sacrificing the country’s reputation as a respectable EU state on the altar of GDP growth irrespective of the sustainability of this growth. In the case of the tuna racket, it is up to the local and international investigators to interpret the exchange of communication between the Spanish tuna company and the Maltese government official and its implications on the way local politicians, business people and public officials interact. 

What is essential is that businesses and individuals operating from Malta stop fishing in troubled waters. They must not take advantage of risky and troubling situations that may arise even if involvement in such situations could lead to quick but illegal profits.

The European Commission must keep insisting that the effective division of power between the legislative, judiciary and executive arms of government underpins the country’s governance.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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