The Spanish authorities were expected to take a closer look at the involvement of Maltese companies and “other entities” suspected of having played a role in an international tuna smuggling racket, sources close to the investigation said.
“There are players in Spain and in Malta that are still on the radar. It is our understanding that this is an issue of widespread abuse that was not limited to just one or two people in Malta,” a source privy to details of the Spanish probe said.
The ongoing investigations, the source added, were not limited to fishing irregularities and smuggling but would also look into money laundering and “other fraudulent activities”.
The source was speaking shortly after a Spanish judge accepted a request by a lower court in Valencia to open an investigation into the alleged practice of smuggling illegally-fattened tuna from Malta into Spain.
The judge of the Spanish National Court announced last week the investigation would be picking up where Spanish environmental crimes investigators had left off when they arrested 79 people as part of an international crackdown code named Operation Tarantelo last summer.
Although none of those arrested were Maltese, the investigation has already made waves locally.
Fisheries Department director general Andreina Fenech Farrugia was last month suspended in the wake of alleged leaked transcripts of phone intercepts from the investigation.
The Spanish media alleged that in the recorded calls she was heard demanding money from a Spanish tuna kingpin. She denies the claims made in her regard, insisting she never accepted or asked for any money for her personally.
The Spanish operator, Josè Fuentes Garcia, who has a presence in Malta, and Maltese MFF Ltd, owned by former Elbros owner Saviour Ellul, both also featured in the phone transcripts.
Sources in the Spanish investigation told the Times of Malta MFF and Mare Blu, owned by Mr Garcia, were the only two companies mentioned in the case. However, they were informed that most operators in the sector had a finger in the pie of the black market dealings one way or another.
Malta police sources said they were in regular contact with Europol and the Spanish authorities to discuss developments in the tuna laundering racket.
The Maltese tuna ranching industry is being investigated by two magistrates as part of two separate inquiries. One was now at a “very advanced stage”, a senior Maltese law enforcement source said.
Spanish investigation sources said irregular tuna catches, which originated from Italy and Malta, would often start to decay en route to the Spanish market but still got sold to consumers. The main problem with supplying such tuna to the market was the dramatic increase in harmful histamines in the meat.
Histamine can be toxic from 50 milligrams per kilo of product, although EU sanitary regulations allow an absolute maximum of 200 milligrams.
The Spanish sources, however, said consumers who ended up hospitalised in Seville ate tuna containing 2,584 milligrams per kilo. Histamines in such proportions can cause heart failure and lung disease, according to an expert report incorporated in the Spanish court case.
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