An international fishing giant with a foothold in Malta is at the centre of an illegal tuna racket worth €20 million a year, The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt. 

A months-long investigation by Spanish and Maltese authorities has 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 the tapas bars and fish markets of Spain. 

Sources privy to the investigation, code named Operation Tarantella, said it was being touted as the biggest ever crackdown on illegal tuna trading in EU history. 

The sources said the inquiry had involved a string of informants, financial investigations into a complex web of shell companies, and wire-tapping of mobile phones, including those belonging to a number of Maltese nationals. 

It also uncovered how a senior official at the Fisheries Department could have been facilitating the racket. 

Earlier this month, Europol released a brief statement announcing that 79 people had been arrested in Spain as a result of an investigation into the black-market trade of tuna. 

While Europol did say that some of the tuna had originated from Maltese waters, the extent of Malta’s involvement had not been divulged by the EU’s law enforcement arm. 

“Malta is the lynch pin of this racket. The tuna is being caught in Maltese waters, fattened in Maltese pens, and laundered – possibly with the help of State officials – before being trafficked across Europe. This is really serious crime, we are talking about big fish and big money,” one source said. 

Another source went on to explain that the international fisheries company operating on the island was part of a chain of companies owned by a big Spanish player in the fisheries market. 

A number of the company’s senior management have already been arrested in Spain with more arrests not ruled out, the sources said. 

Furthermore, the alleged involvement of Malta’s institutions in this racket was first uncovered by chance during the course of the investigation. 

It turns out that a request had been made at the Fisheries Department by a fisheries company seeking to increase its export quota “dramatically” from 2,000 tons of fish to 3,000 tons. 

Requests of this nature would normally require a series of top-level signatures but was ushered through the process by an official. 

The request to increase the quota was eventually blocked at “ministerial level”, a government source said yesterday, as the police investigation was already well under way. 

The official in question is believed to have been key to facilitating part of the racket, one police source said. 

According to sources privy to the Spanish investigation, two companies that fall under the umbrella of the fisheries giant were the main cover for the illegal trade – importing unclaimed bluefin tuna to Spain from Malta through Italy, mostly using freighting trucks. 

A number of other players in the Spanish distribution market were also involved in facilitating the crime and getting the fish into restaurant display cabinets and on to consumer’s plates. 

This is not Malta’s first involvement in black market tuna trade. Back in 2007, Japanese customs authorities had seized 3.5 million kilos of illegal tuna originating from Malta’s fattening farms. 

According to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, the global black market for the highly prized fish is estimated at more than €400 million annually. 

The wide-ranging 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. Tests conducted on some of the fish by Spain’s consumer rights authority found it contained a dangerously high level of histamines and had not been properly refrigerated during transportation. 

More details on the investigation and the complex racket are expected to start coming out in the Spanish court in the coming weeks as the prosecution case is set to begin. 

Meanwhile, police sources said the investigation in Malta was still very much under way. 

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