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NEWS | Sunday, 15 June 2008

French vessel charged with illegal fishing in Malta, as net of investigation closes in on fishy tuna trade

Raphael Vassallo

The captain of a French-flagged fishing vessel was charged in court yesterday for illegally fishing in Maltese waters, after an AFM patrol apprehended the vessel within Malta’s 25-mile conservation zone without the necessary permit.
MaltaToday is reliably informed the vessel’s French owner, who is an associate of local fishing market leader Azzopardi Fisheries, also faces charges over shipping and fishing irregularities in Libya.
Fontanet Silvere and Serge Antoine Jose Perez were granted provisional liberty on a €116,000 guarantee.
‘Saint Antoine Marie’ is a purse-seiner fishing boat licensed to fish for bluefin tuna by the international conservation authority, ICCAT. It was intercepted in Maltese waters on Thursday after the Directorate of Fisheries received reports of suspicious activity within the 25-mile conservation zone, in which a special licence is required for any type of fishing.
AFM personnel boarded the vessel for a routine document check, and found it to be in possession of 3,500kg (3.5 tonnes) of bluefin tuna, estimated to be worth around €24,000 on the international market.
If found guilty, the owners of the Saint Antoine Marie may be fined anything between Lm4,000 and Lm50,000 (approx. €10,000 to €125,000).
On his part, the captain told local police investigators that the tuna had been legally caught outside Malta’s conservation zone, and that the vessel had unintentionally drifted into Maltese waters after its VMS system allegedly broke down on Thursday.
Owned by Serge Herez, Saint Antoine Marie is contracted to supply live tuna to AJD Tuna Ltd, a subsidiary of Azzopardi Fisheries, for its tuna farms in Comino and St Paul’s Bay.
Herez is the same French associate with whom AJD Tuna Ltd recently purchased two purse-seiners from a Turkish port, which were then brought to Malta and reflagged under suspicious circumstances in the Grand Harbour.
The new unlicensed fishing boats were renamed Manara I and Manara II – taking the place of two ICCAT-registered vessels – and sailed towards Libya, equipped with purse-seine nets, in May. They were subsequently detained in the Libyan port of Al-Khums after their identity was called question, and both now subject to an official inquiry by the Libyan port authorities.
Herez himself faces charges in Libya in connection with that particular case, and for the same reason his other vessel Saint Antoine Marie, currently impounded in Valletta, lost its licence to fish for tuna in Libyan waters.
The reflagging of the original Manara I and Manara II is likewise being investigated locally, after the matter was reported to the European Commission and ICCAT by international conservation organisations, Greenpeace and WWF. The inquest was ordered in May by Transport Minister Austin Gatt, while the Ministry for Rural Affairs has since communicated to local fisheries that any tuna supplied by the Manara I and II, or their namesakes in Libya, was not to be accepted.
Commenting on the most recent in a string of alleged fishing irregularities involving local interests, Fisheries Director Anthony Gruppetta explained that the catch in this case was not considered particularly large by international fishing standards.
“However, we are not concerned only with the amount, but also with the principle of the matter,” he said.
Bluefin tuna fishing is a highly controversial issue on Europe, with conservation groups warning that the giant ocean-going predator faces imminent extinction precisely because of serial over-fishing.
Illegal tuna fishing is expected to intensify this summer, after the
European Commission announced this week the immediate closure of all member states’ bluefin tuna fisheries, including Malta’s, after the total European catch exceeded 80% of the annual quota within a few weeks.

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