The tuna ranching industry is being investigated by two magistrates as part of an international operation that established a Maltese connection in the EU’s aquaculture black market.

An investigation has uncovered a network of shell companies and distributors that have allegedly been funnelling illegal tuna catches from Maltese waters. Photo: ShutterstockAn investigation has uncovered a network of shell companies and distributors that have allegedly been funnelling illegal tuna catches from Maltese waters. Photo: Shutterstock

Police sources said the magisterial inquiries were looking into the operations of a number of Malta-based offshore fish farms.

The Sunday Times of Malta reported that a Spanish fisheries giant linked to Malta was believed to be at the centre of an EU-wide illegal tuna racket worth more than €20 million a year.

The sources noted that although the first magisterial inquiry had been triggered by allegations of wrongdoing by the Spanish firm, the Malta police would be taking a deep dive into the sector and a number of other operators on the island, which was suspected to be rife with abuse.

The sources indicated that a second magisterial inquiry started after tuna pen inspectors reported irregularities at a number of sites in Maltese waters in recent weeks.

The months-long investigation by Spanish and Maltese authorities, 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.

Shortly after the first inquiry began, the Maltese authorities were informed that a senior official at the Fisheries Directorate could have been involved in facilitating part of the racket, the sources said.

They added the official had made a dubious request to raise the island’s tuna export quota “dramatically” from 3,000 tons to 4,000 tons. Such requests would normally require a series of top-level signatures but, it was suspected that, in this case, things were speeded up.

The request was eventually blocked at “ministerial level”, a government source said.

Tuna racket worth more than €20 million a year

Questions sent to the Environment Ministry on the matter remained unanswered by the time of writing.

The sources said the police were in close contact with their Spanish counterparts, who were given financial information on the Spanish firm suspected to be involved in the tuna racket.

They were now hoping to dig up some information on Maltese individuals in the sector that was expected to be produced as evidence in Spain’s courts next month.

“It’s time for a shake-up. A lot of organised crime, be it fisheries abuse, smuggled cigarettes, narcotics trafficking or fuel smuggling, happens using boats in and around Maltese territorial waters. It is the law of the jungle out there and this needs to stop,” a source familiar with the investigations in progress said.

Industry sources said the court action in Spain was expected to shed more light on what had been going on beneath the surface of Malta’s fish farming industry.

Europol announced earlier this month that 79 people had been arrested in Spain as a result of the months-long investigation.

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