MaltaToday | 24 August 2008

NEWS | Sunday, 24 August 2008

Fishy is as fishy does

How Malta’s multi-million euro tuna ranching industry is driving the Mediterranean bluefin tuna to the brink of extinction. By Raphael Vassallo

In recent years there has been growing international concern over the survival of the Northern bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus): now classified as a “critically endangered species”.
Commercial interests, fuelled mainly by the Japanese sushi market, have driven industrial fishing fleets to exhaust one breeding ground after another. As a result, the bluefin tuna is already all but extinct in the Pacific, while the Atlantic and Mediterranean stocks are now so severely depleted that the fish cannot naturally reproduce in sufficient quantities to guarantee future. This, scientists warn, is a sure-fire recipe for global extinction.
But despite an international recovery programme and a European Commission maritime surveillance exercise commenced this summer, we are still witnessing a systematic mass-extermination of bluefin tuna for the short-term gain of only one specific sector of the fisheries industry. Admittedly it is a lucrative sector – Malta alone makes an estimated €100 million a year from its exports to Japan – but from a global point of view, the issue at stake represents nothing less than an ecological and socio-economic catastrophe in the making.
The loss of any predator at the top of the food chain is bound to have serious, if unpredictable, consequences for the marine ecosystem as a whole. But if the bluefin tuna disappears altogether, so too will Mata’s traditional long-line tuna fishing trade, which supports over 1,000 families. (On an international scale, the cost of a total bluefin tuna stocks collapse is simply incalculable.)
The government of Malta, while officially requesting even more stringent protective measures than are actually enforced by the EU and ICCAT (the international tuna conservation commission), has nonetheless pursued an aggressive expansionist policy regarding its own tuna ranching industry, which is now the largest in the world.
Greenpeace and WWF, among others, have meanwhile accused local authorities of turning a blind eye to numerous shipping and fishing irregularities over the years.

Multiplication of the fish farms
From its earliest inception, the local tuna ranching industry has benefited from an apparent immunity to planning regulations.
Eight years ago, AJD Tuna Ltd – a subsidiary of Azzopardi Fisheries – managed to acquire eight cages with a claimed (but disputed) capacity of 2.5 million kg in St Paul’s Bay, despite having a permit (PA 7377/98) for only four. Even then, the farm came to be sited in a different location from the one stipulated in the permit, covering an area twice the size.
Azzopardi applied to sanction these illegalities, but although the Planning Authority board turned down this application, a controversial “re-vote” was taken one month later: against the PA’s own procedural policies, and on the personal insistence of government’s representative to the board, Nationalist MP Michael Bonnici.
The illegal extension was therefore sanctioned by an irregular vote, with the blessing of the government of Malta.
Subsequent case officers’ reports into the numerous applications associated with this development reveal a shocking litany of illegalities and blatant disregard for permit conditions over the years, which will be the subject of an exhaustive study to be published in the near future.
But with the exception of a forfeited Lm100,000 bank guarantee – recoverable by selling less than 0.01% of his declared capacity of tuna – AJD Tuna Ltd’s owner, Mr Charles Azzopardi, not a single enforcement notice in connection with this farm has ever been enforced.
With hindsight, it is easy to surmise how all this came to be “overlooked” by the authorities. This newspaper recently published a colourful anecdote about Rural Affairs Minister George Pullicino’s involvement in an ill-fated yachting cruise to Sicily last year.
Together with then Mepa chairman Andrew Calleja, Pullicino was invited in April 2007 on a trip to Syracuse on board a yacht chartered by Charles Azzopardi. It seems that all three disembarked at Pozzallo in order to continue the trip overland, while the hired skipper sailed the boat to meet them at the appointed destination. But the yacht never quite made it to Syracuse: apparently it ran aground somewhere on the Sicilian coast. Azzopardi, Calleja and Pullicino were later spotted waiting on the quay by a sizeable number of Maltese yachtsmen, who were at the time participating in the annual Marsamemi race.
Admittedly this incident cannot in itself be taken as evidence of wrongdoing. But it does expose the more-than-friendly relations that evidently existed between the Minister, the Mepa chairman and Malta’s then foremost tuna rancher.
This relationship assumes greater significance in the light of the following facts: 1) At the time, and throughout Calleja’s tenure of office, Azzopardi operated a large-capacity tuna farm in clear breach of a number of permit conditions; 2) As a direct consequence of these breaches, Azzopardi himself had grown to be the largest single operator in a €100 million local industry.

Flying flags
Apart from an exemption to all Malta’s planning contraventions, tuna ranchers appear to also be blest with apparent immunity to prosecution, even in the face of cast-iron proof of illegality.
Last March, Greenpeace and WWF sent to the European Commission photographic evidence of an irregular reflagging exercise carried out in the Grand Harbour, and involving two Libyan-registered vessels belonging to Hannibal Ltd – a company 100% owned by Azzopardi Fisheries – together with two French associates, Fontanet Silvere and Serge Antoine Jose Perez.
The purpose of this exercise appears to have been to replace two obsolete (but licensed) purse-seiner fishing vessels with another two modern (but unlicensed) vessels of greater tuna-catching capability.
This complex situation is perhaps best explained by the following excerpts from ICCAT circular 1226/08, signed by commission chairman Fabio Hazin and circulated on 27 June:
“I have received information... concerning the Bolivian flag vessels Cevahir and Abdi Baba I, which were sighted at the port of Valletta, indicating that these two vessels left (Valletta) under different names, Manara I and Manara II.
“... The owners of the two Bolivian vessels Cevahir I and Abdi Baba I used the certificates, documents and names of the real Libyan vessels Manara I and Manara II for re-flagging under the Libyan register…
“These vessels are currently tied up in Zwara Fishing Port (Libya) and Valletta Harbour (Malta), and will remain so until the investigation is completed. They will not be able to carry out any fishing activity and they are not to be included on any active list registered at the ICCAT Secretariat.”
To put the story into perspective, the two parties which stood to gain from this illegal transaction were Silvere and Perez, who would have gained access to Libya’s “conservation zone” (declared by Libyan leader Gaddafi in May 2005, and believed to be among the last tuna-rich spawning grounds in the Mediterranean); and Azzopardi Fisheries, into whose tuna pens all four vessels would input their catch.
The loser, naturally, would have been the bluefin tuna.

'Nulle prosequi?'
The day after the story appeared in the media (May 18), Transport Minister Austin Gatt ordered an inquiry into the incident. The report, filed on June 10, exonerated the MMA of any wrongdoing in the affair, but pointed out that “…it was Hannibal Fishing Ltd which was wrong in providing the Fisheries and Aquaculture Branch and the Malta Maritime Authority with false information in the Applications for Registration and in the Declarations of Ownership filed with the MMA.”
The report goes on to recommend that “in view of this possible conflicting interpretation, the Ministry should seek the assistance of the Attorney General.”
Two months later, it is not known whether the Transport Ministry has heeded this advice. Certainly no criminal proceedings have been initiated against Azzopardi Fisheries in connection with this case.
Nor has there been any local investigation into last week’s open accusations, reported in this newspaper, that Malta is actively involved in an international tuna laundering racket.
These allegations were made by tuna consultancy firm ATRT/SL, and centre around a suspected trade in IUU catch in order to circumvent national quotas.

Tuna laundering allegations
The presumed racket would work like this: EU member states, as ICCAT contracting party countries, are allotted their own annual quota of allowable catch. But because Malta’s fishing fleet is so small (see inset box), its own quota is rarely reached or even approximated. The same cannot be said for the fleets of other countries, many of which are contracted to provide live fish for local farms. France, Italy and Spain are regularly accused of overshooting their allotted quotas; outside the EU, Turkey, Morocco, Libya and others are likewise believed to systematically exceed the amounts they are allowed to declare by ICCAT.
For these reasons, fishing fleets of countries which overshoot their quota are believed to pass their excess catch onto other countries which still have an abundance of tuna that can (if caught by that country) be legally declared.
Malta’s alleged involvement in this so-called “Paper Tuna Quota Trade” came to the fore after MaltaToday ran a series of articles about an apparent discrepancy regarding Malta’s exports of bluefin tuna to Japan between June 2007 and March 2008.
Japanese trade records register over 11 million kg in imports from Malta between June 2007 and March 2008: a figure since confirmed by the Rural Affairs Ministry.
This contrasts sharply with independent estimates of the amount of tuna that was physically available for export over the same period, which hover between a maximum of 6.8 million kg (source: Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbum) and a minimum of 4.9 million kg (source: ATRT/SL).
According to these allegations, Malta would have falsely declared its tuna ranching capability at 12 million kg (Azzopardi’s farm in St Paul’s Bay alone claims 2.5 million kg, while independent estimates, based on information supplied by the Ministry itself, suggest its real capacity to be closer to 1.35 million kg). By inflating this figure and also by issuing re-export certificates for tuna which was only in transit, other countries’ IUU tuna can be passed off as Maltese exports without ever having been physically present in Malta’s ranches.
Fisheries Director Dr Anthony Gruppetta immediately rebutted these allegations, claiming that the figure of 11 million kg+ also included transhipments of tuna products from other countries, citing Morocco, Turkey and Libya as examples.
However, this has only raised additional questions regarding whether transhipments from third countries can be counted in official trade records as re-exports from the last port of call.
ICCAT’s recommendation 2007-10 defines “re-export” as “any movement of bluefin tuna in its harvested or processed form (including farmed) from the territory of a Contracting Party Country where it has been previously imported.”
However, declarations submitted by the European Commission to ICCAT suggest that for the year ending December 31 2007, Malta had imported no live bluefin tuna at all.
This is doubly anomalous, considering that Dr Gruppetta confirmed with MaltaToday that one (unidentified) Maltese fish-farm carried over to this year an excess 200,000 kg of bluefin tuna which had been caught by a Moroccan purse-seiner in 2007. This would surely qualify as a Maltese import, but Malta’s declarations to the Commission for 2007, subsequently passed onto to ICCAT, do not feature a single kilogramme of tuna imported from Morocco corresponding to that period.
Questions have also surfaced regarding individual transhipments cited by the Ministry. For example, in January 2008 Malta would have transhipped 1.23 million kg from Libya and Turkey. Turkey’s quota for last year was 0.9 million kg, of which 0.85 million kg had already been exported by December 31 2007. This means that Turkey’s share of the above transhipment could not have exceeded 0.05 million kg… and Libya had no ICCAT registered tuna ranches in 2007.

Weight problems
Having examined statistical data supplied by this newspaper two weeks ago, the Fisheries and Aquaculture branch of the MRRA now claims that the Japanese customs figures are “technically correct”, but argues that MaltaToday has misinterpreted these figures owing to the industry’s complex system of weight conversion.
Malta, a ministry spokesman explained, adheres to the “round-weight” system – weighing each individual fish separately – whereas ICCAT and Japan employ a conversion system, calculating the weight of each fish from the weight of its individual processed body parts.
According to this hypothesis, Malta would have exported 6.7 million kg of locally farmed fish, and an additional 5 million kg worth of transhipments in round-weight figures (source: MRRA).
But this raises an immediate question: many of these transhipments involved tuna which had already been processed and frozen by the time it reached Malta for re-export. How, then, did the Ministry calculate the mass of these transhipments in round-weights, when there was no whole fish to actually weigh using that system?
These and other unanswered questions suggest that, despite threats of legal action by the operators of Mareblu Tuna Farm Ltd, Ta’ Mattew Tuna Farm Ltd, Fish Tuna Farm Ltd, Melita Tuna Farm Ltd and AJD Tuna Ltd (the latter threat having already been carried out), there is indeed something dubious and questionable in Malta’s tuna ranching trade. MaltaToday therefore feels compelled to dig deeper into this murky affair.

How Malta’s tuna trade works

Malta is involved in the tuna trade on two distinct fronts: fishing, and ranching.
The local tuna fishing fleet is considered tiny by international standards, and except for one medium size tuna purse-seiner, employs only traditional long-line vessels.
Last season, Maltese fishermen declared a mere 142,700 kg in total catch, out of a total of 11 million kg declared by the industry. By all accounts – including the European Commission’s – the impact of this industry on Mediterranean tuna stocks is negligible.
The rest of Malta’s tuna stock is accounted for by the local ranching industry, which, with a total (declared) capacity of 12 million kg, makes this country arguably the foremost bluefin tuna ranching superpower in the world.
Local tuna ranches operate by purchasing live tuna caught mainly by international fleets: French, Spanish, Italian, Libyan, Moroccan and Turkish, among other nationalities. The imported tuna are then held, fattened and harvested in cages in Malta-based cages. The vast majority (over 90%) ends up on the Japanese market, where the fish can fetch prices of up to €20 a kilo.
For this reason, Malta is also among the largest Mediterranean employer of “purse-seiner” vessels: equipped with large nets capable of hauling much larger quantities of tuna in shorter time-frames.
International conservation groups such as Greenpeace and the Word Wildlife Fund hold these fleets responsible for ‘serial overfishing’ of bluefin tuna, which is now officially listed as a critically endangered species.

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