Malta has been rocked by a scandal that started in Spain following the release of summaries of telephone taps of telephone calls allegedly between fisheries director-general, Andreina Fenech Farrugia, and a director of the major Spanish tuna firm, Fuentes, which owns the Mare Blu fisheries company here.

Dr Fenech Farrugia was suspended from her duties when the Spanish media published excerpts from phone call transcripts. She insists she never accepted bribes from Fuentes, as is being alleged, nor solicited any money from Mare Blu.

Spanish investigators stumbled upon evidence that a Maltese tuna rancher could also have been involved in an EU-wide fisheries racket during investigations they were conducting into a rogue Spanish operator last year. So Dr Fenech Farrugia may well be only one cog in a much wider fisheries racket involving Spain, Italy, France and Malta.

According to documents submitted in a Spanish court, Malta Fish Farming Ltd (MFF) was also identified in wire-tapped telephone calls as a supplier of illegal tuna to the Spanish market, alongside the Spanish-owned company of Mare Blu. Sources in Spain told this newspaper MFF and Mare Blu were the only two Malta-based companies mentioned in the case.

Judging by the circumstantial evidence and reports from insiders in the tuna business, it is difficult not to conclude that most operators in this sector have been involved in some form of black market dealings in this extremely profitable multi-million euro trade. All the reports point to a long-standing history of lax enforcement of EU fisheries laws, which has facilitated gross abuse and illegalities.

Lax enforcement benefits hugely those involved in this highly-lucrative business. Like so much in Malta, enforcement of the letter of the law is honoured more in the breach than the observance. It is reported by insiders that enforcement officers are being misled into allowing tuna ranchers to make huge profits on undeclared tuna catches and the illegal harvesting of tuna. A National Audit Office inquiry has drawn attention to the sad state of the monitoring of companies.

Unless stringent regulations are laid down and, importantly, constantly monitored, the whole tuna ranching business is open to abuse. When a tuna ranch owner is asked to release caged tuna back into the open to honour the national quotas establishing limits on how many fish can be caught and killed, the operation should be observed by representatives of the Fisheries Department and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. However, such oversight appears lax and subject to abuse.

As it happens, the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, is responsible for EU policy in this area. The core of that policy is built around the sustainability of fishing stocks. Blatant overfishing in the Mediterranean is leading to the long-term depletion of stocks, of course, to the detriment of all of us.

The case now being handled by the Spanish courts has highlighted vividly that fishing limits are not being observed. Indeed, they are being grossly abused and Maltese tuna ranchers appear to be heavily implicated in a case involving a number of Mediterranean countries where disregard for the rules is rampant.

It remains to be seen whether Brussels has any standing in this affair and, if so, how it intends to exercise it.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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