Malta’s tuna trade needs to be publicly investigated

The latest indications have raised serious questions about the manner in which the industry operates locally but they are by no means new

It is, up to a point, reassuring to know that a police investigation into tuna bribery allegations, and the alleged involvement of fisheries director Andreina Fenech Farrugia, has been ongoing since October… and that a magisterial inquiry has since been opened.

But given the severity of the implications, and the fact that the tuna ranching industry has been the subject of numerous similar suspicions in the past, the time has clearly come for a full public inquiry into this particular industry.

According to the Spanish police, transcripts of phone taps revealed the extent of Fenech Farrugia’s alleged involvement in trying to appease the requests for higher fish quotas industry operators: including Spanish tuna impresario Jose Fuentes, who has subsidiary companies in Malta, trading under the name Mare Blu, that operate offshore tuna farms.

In one conversation, Fenech Farrugia is recorded asking Fuentes for payment. This led Spanish investigators to believe that Fenech Farrugia may have used her role as director of fisheries to regularise tuna catches that surpassed strict international quotas. (At one point, she was asked by Fuentes to increase his company’s fishing quota from 3,000 tonnes to 4,000 tonnes.)

But the questions span much more than these latest indications. Just over 10 years ago, this newspaper ran a series of articles about discrepancies in Malta’s official re-export figures for bluefin tuna: a fish that fetches exorbitant prices on the international markets, especially in Japan.

It was alleged at the time that Malta may have been involved in an international tuna laundering operation, whereby illegally caught tuna was ‘regularised’ by passing it off as part of other countries’ (including Malta’s) quota. Clearly, this could not have been possible without the collusion of Maltese officials: especially, but not exclusively, the Fisheries Directorate.

As those stories became the subject of multiple lawsuits, no further investigation was carried out into the matter. It became clear that there were massive vested interests involved: if nothing else, the re-export figures themselves suggested a trade worth several hundred million euros.

Even without more recent revelations, it remains inconceivable that an industry capable of generating such profits – and already subject to widespread international suspicion (for which evidence, in the form of export discrepancies, had been provided) – would remain uninvestigated to this day.

But now that some form of inquiry is taking place, it is essential that the scope of investigation is extended beyond the confines of the latest leaks. It is not enough to focus only on one official – the director of fisheries, Andreina Fenech Farrugia – without also examining the full context of a regulatory framework that is clearly flawed and malfunctioning.

The investigation must also be viewed, for instance, in the context of a report published by the Auditor General last November – focusing on how the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) carries out its inspectorate functions.

The AG’s office found that “the vast majority of Malta’s fishing fleet” was not equipped with tracking devices such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), Vessel Monitoring system (VMS), and the General Pocket Radio Service (GPRS): all devices which are installed on vessels (depending on size) licensed to fish for protected species.

The audit concluded that the “DFA has practically no means by which to remotely monitor the movements of a very large portion of the local fishing fleet”.

Apart from a lack of data and equipment, the Auditor General also noted that mandatory inspections were not taking place. Only six inspections targeting six vessels were carried out in 2017, and a single inspection on one vessel was conducted at sea between January and June 2018. As a result, a substantial percentage of Maltese fishing vessels were found to be operating without any regular supervision at all.

This is all symptomatic of a regulatory authority – in this case, the Directorate of Fisheries – which is failing in its primary objectives. There is also a European dimension to this failure: as an EU member state, Malta is obliged to implement the Commission’s recovery plan for bluefin tuna (a plan that was drawn up under the tenure of Maltese Commissioner Joe Borg). The implementation of this plan depends largely on adequate supervision of all aspects of the industry: from the individual fishing vessels involved, to the precise quantities of tuna that may be officially listed under the quota system each year.

On a separate note, it is worrying, too, that even the director herself seems to think that an increase in one’s share of a national quota can be ‘bought and sold’, like tuna at a market. Dr Fenech Farrugia seems to be arguing that it is legitimate for an operator to pay the Maltese regulator to increase his quota. If that is indeed the case (and given the absence of proper scrutiny, it is hard to know for certain), it clearly defeats the whole point of having a state regulator in the first place. And besides, such a system can also be seen to be a recipe for corruption at all levels.

There is, simply put, too much that stinks about this business. Only a full, public national inquiry can possibly clear the air.