MaltaToday | 25 May 2008 | Two Azzopardi fishing boats charged in Libya

NEWS | Sunday, 25 May 2008

Two Azzopardi fishing boats charged in Libya

Two unlicensed pure-seiner fishing vessels owned by Azzopardi Fisheries have been charged in Libya with illegal import and swapping identity, after allegedly changing flag from Bolivian to Libyan in Malta, and taking the place of two separate vessels which are licensed by international authorities to fish for bluefin tuna.
The Abdi Baba and Cevahir were impounded in the Libyan port of Al Khums in the past weeks, after sailing from Malta on 4 May. Both now face criminal charges for shipping irregularities, although MaltaToday is informed that the official inquiry into the case, conducted by Libyan authorities, may drag on for years.

On Wednesday, MaltaToday revealed that Abdi Baba and Cevahir had been purchased from Turkey by AJD Tuna Ltd, a subsidiary of Azzopardi Fisheries, in partnership with French associates. They then sailed to Malta under the Bolivian flag and entered the Grand Harbour on 21 April.
Investigations carried out by Greenpeace International and the World Wildlife Fund revealed that the flag state had no records of either vessel being registered with Bolivia; and yet, both received permission to dock from the Valletta Port Authority.
Photographic evidence also suggests that the same two stateless vessels were then re-registered under the Libyan flag, with their names changed to “Manara I” and “Manara II”, in order to be passed off as two different fishing vessels, also owned by AJD Tuna LTD, which are licensed to fish for bluefin tuna by the International Convention for Conservation for Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT).
Informed sources told this newspaper that the purpose of this reflagging exercise was to circumvent international fishing regulations. The Abda Baba and Cevahir were intended to replace the Manara I and Manara II, which were obsolete by modern tuna fishing standards. But rather than re-register the two new vessels with ICCAT and risk refusal of a permit to fish for bluefin tuna, the idea appears to have been to substitute the two new vessels for the old ones, and use the existing registration for two different vessels.
The Libyan flag, achieved through partnership with Libyan compay Manarat as-Sahil, further enables these “impostor vessels” to fish for tuna in Libyan territorial waters.
Meanwhile, the original two licensed fishing vessels, Manara I and Manara II, are believed to be the same two vessels impounded in the Grand Harbour last Monday, after Transport Minister Austin Gatt launched an investigation into a suspect reflagging exercise upon the insistence of the European Commissioner for Fisheries, Joe Borg.

No investigation for fishing irregularities
A spokesman for the Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment (MRAE) told MaltaToday that to date, Malta has never been faced with any proven case of illegal fishing.
“We adhere to the strict ICCAT regulations and we are committed to implement any regulations imposed by ICCAT and / or the European Commission,” the MRAE official said. “As you are aware, there is an investigation currently under way by the Malta Maritime Authority concerning two workboats, and not fishing boats. Once this is concluded, the Ministry will look into the findings of the inquiry and if it is deemed necessary, the Ministry will act accordingly.”
Questions have however been raised as to the identity of the two boats under investigation by the Maltese authorities. According to the Transport Ministry statement issued on Monday, the two vessels concerned are the “MV Sharone I” and the “MV Gaja I”. But photographic evidence shows that these two vessels are in fact the selfsame Manara I and Manara II. On Sunday 18 May, when their impostor namesakes were detained in Libya, the two boats were reflagged as Malta-registered vessels, and renamed “Sharone I” and “Gaja I”. Later still they were renamed again, this time to “Abdi Baba” and “Cevahir”, under which identity they attempted to leave the Grand Harbour on the same day. However, they were refused permission by the port authority.
Manara I and Manara II are both registered by ICCAT as “purse-seiner” vessels, with registration number ST1220 and ST1221 respectively. This would suggest that the vessels under investigation are in fact licensed bluefin tuna fishing boats, and not “workboats” as suggested by the ministry.
However, questions sent to the Malta Maritime Authority regarding the Sharone I and Gaja I were returned without any answers. The MMA is responsible for the registration of any vessel under the Maltese flag, which in turn implies that if the vessels in questions were irregularly flagged last Sunday, as alleged by Greenpeace and WWF, this could only have taken place with the knowledge of MMA officials.

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