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NEWS | Wednesday, 24 September 2008

From ghost ship to phantom firm: Malta’s tuna exports get fishier by the minute

The government of Malta has listed among its official exports to Japan a quantity of bluefin tuna, worth over €1 million, which was processed on a double-registered ship, and then sold to a non-existent company in Spain.
Malta’s permanent representative to the European Commission, Mr Richard Cachia Caruana, made this assertion in a letter sent to the DG Mare’s Fokin Fotiadis, in which the government of Malta sought to dispel allegations that local exports of bluefin tuna to Japan for 2007-2008 do not add up to informed estimates of the quantity available for export over the same period.
Specifically, Cachia Caruana’s letter makes reference to a quantity of tuna processed in May 2008 on board the Tuna Pro 1 – registered separately under two different owners and operators, in breach of international maritime regulations – and then sold to a Spanish company named “Tuna Pro Co. Ltd”, which turns out not to be listed anywhere on Spain’s official register of companies.
Allegations regarding Malta’s lucrative tuna ranching industry were first made by Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies (ATRT/SL), consultants to Greenpeace International and the World Wildlife Fund, and published in this newspaper on 31 July.
Japanese trade records show that Malta exported nearly 12,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna – a critically endangered species – when according to ATRT/SL, the amount of tuna available for export could not exceed a maximum of 6,800 tonnes.
Responding to the Commission’s request for a clarification of these anomalies, Cachia Caruana reiterated Rural Affairs Minister George Pullicino’s position that the figure of 12,000 tonnes is not limited to locally-farmed tuna, but also includes over 4,000 tonnes’ worth of transhipments from third countries. In support of this thesis, Cachia Caruana listed a number of examples of bluefin tuna caught by Moroccan traps in 2007, and then transhipped to other countries via Maltese ports, with the final destination being Japan.
It is debatable whether such transhipments can legally be recorded as Maltese re-exports to begin with; but even without this question-mark, some of the unaccounted-for tuna exports – worth an estimated €100 million in total – appear to have been illegally traded.
One such transaction involves the processing of tuna on board a “ghost ship” – registered under the Guinean flag to two different owners simultaneously – and then sold to a “Spanish” company which, under scrutiny, turns out to be actually based in Belize, South America.
In his letter, Malta’s ambassador to the European Commission quoted Fisheries Director Dr Anthony Gruppetta, who claims that 58,271kg (worth over €1 million) of the total transhipped tuna, caught by Moroccan fishermen before July 2007, was harvested on board a vessel named Tuna Pro 1 in May 2008, and sold to a company called Tuna Pro Co. ltd in Spain.
Dr Gruppetta insists that this fish was never held in Maltese farms. But it is not at all clear where the tuna was stored in the 11 months between being caught and being processed, as Morocco had no registered tuna ranching facilities in 2007.
Even so, the identity of the processing vessel Tuna Pro 1 (IMO: 7729796) is far from clear. The well-known international shipping register, Lloyds MIU, has the vessel down as belonging to Malta Fishfarming Ltd, and operated by the same company. (According to the same register, the vessel’s last known movements took place in February 2005.)
However, Tuna Pro 1 is listed separately in the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT)’s register of authorised carrying vessels as belonging to a company called “Tuna Pro Co. Ltd” – based in Belize City – and operated by Ta’ Mattew Fish Farm Ltd, Malta.
As for the government’s claims that the tuna was sold to a Spanish company, it transpires that no firm by the name of “Tuna Pro Co. Ltd” is listed in any of Spain’s three official registers of companies, which cover mainland Spain and the Balearics, the Canary Islands and also Spain’s territories in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla.
This in turn means that the €1 million consignment of tuna could not have been sold to Spain as implied in Cachia Caruana’s letter. And even if it was, it remains unclear how the same quantity of tuna, being a Morrocan export to Spain, could subsequently be reclassified as a Maltese re-export to Japan.
Significantly, Mr Richard Cachia Caruana’s letter to the DG Mare was sent in the same week as an independent panel – appointed by ICCAT to assess the progress of the bluefin tuna recovery plan – lambasted the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery as a “travesty” and a “disgrace”.
Malta is the Mediterranean’s largest bluefin tuna ranching industry.
Meanwhile it is not known whether the European Commission is investigating any anomalies in Malta’s official reply, as to date the Maltese Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Dr Joe Borg, has avoided answering any direct questions on the subject.


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