NEWS | Sunday, 28 September 2008

Commissioner Borg lets Malta wriggle out of the net

Europe’s Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Dr Joe Borg, is refusing to comment on an inquiry which he himself requested in April – and which provides compelling evidence of illegal activities condoned in his own home country – citing a tenuous “national judicial process” in order to sidestep an issue which is deeply embarrassing to the government of Malta.
Commissioner Borg – whose term expires next year – has studiously avoided answering any direct question regarding an inquiry which implicates Azzopardi Fisheries in a case of vessel document fraud.
Replying to questions sent by this newspaper on Friday 12 September, Dr Borg claimed that “The issue is currently being dealt with through the national judicial process and therefore the Commission does not have any comment to make.”
However, this does not tally with the version of events supplied by the Attorney General Dr Silvio Camilleri, who this week told MaltaToday that there was no formal judicial process currently under way in connection with this case.
Camilleri explained that according to Malta’s legal system, a judicial process is understood as having commenced only when the police institute proceedings in court – something that has not yet occurred with regard to the re-flagging inquiry.
Dr Camilleri however added that: “It depends what one means by ‘judicial process’. It is possible that one might use that word to describe a consultation process before any such action is initiated; in this case I neither confirm nor deny that such consultation process is ongoing.”
A spokesperson for Dr Borg meanwhile qualified his earlier statement as follows: “On your question regarding the reference to the ‘judicial process’ what was meant was that since the issue was referred to the Attorney General by the relevant Minister the issue is now with the Attorney General. Given this situation the Commission will not comment on this issue.”
It is understood that Dr Borg will not be seeking re-appointment to the Commission after his term expires, but plans instead to make a comeback to the Maltese political scene.
Malta’s inaction questioned
The Attorney General’s apparent reluctance to take any action in this case has not gone unnoticed by the international media.
On Friday, Fishing News International ( – which already ran a story on the re-flagging incident in May – highlighted the inquiry report into the same incident, which meanwhile simply fizzled out into nothing.
Under the headline “Malta tuna scandal stalls with Attorney General”, journalist Tom Seaman observes that “Malta’s attorney general is yet to act on a government report that implicates the directors of bluefin tuna ranching giant Azzopardi Fisheries in providing false documentation in order to get vessel licenses – an offence that can carry jail time.”
The case goes back to April, when Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund photographed an illegal re-flagging exercise carried out in the Grand Harbour, right under the noses of the port authorities.
Re-flagging is a process whereby a vessel changes its identity by supplying false documentation to the Malta Maritime Authority. In this case, there were four vessels involved: two obsolete fishing boats owned by Hannibal Fishing Ltd – a subsidiary of Azzopardi Fisheries Ltd – and two new boats bought from Turkey by Azzopardi in connection with French partners.
These four vessels “swapped” identities by exchanging names and switching from Bolivian to Libyan, and then to Maltese flags. The idea behind this exercise was to upgrade the two ageing fishing vessels without approval of the international tuna industry regulator ICCAT, while at the same time gaining access to Libyan territorial waters by means of the Libyan flag.
All four vessels are now impounded: two in Malta, and the other two in Libya.
A Commission delegation was in Malta at the time the re-flagging took place, and on 22 April requested a clarification from the Maltese government. An inquiry was duly initiated by Transport Minister Austin Gatt on Monday 11 May – shortly after photographs of the incident were printed separately in MaltaToday and l-orizzont.
The inquiry was concluded almost exactly a month later, and its findings exonerated the MMA of any wrongdoing. But the report highlighted questionable procedures involving the licensing of workboats by the Fisheries Control Division; and more significantly still, it concluded that the owners of Hannibal Fishing Ltd – Anthony and Charles Azzopardi– had supplied false information regarding the vessels in order to have them flagged as Maltese, among other nationalities.
This infringement carries possible repercussions both on Malta’s reputation as a flag state, as well as on the precarious status of the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus): listed as a critically endangered species.
However, no action has since been taken against Hannibal Fishing Ltd, despite the fact that the inquiry report was passed on to the office of the Attorney General on June 16 – more than 13 weeks ago.
Immunity to prosecution
This is not the only case of apparent immunity to all forms of prosecution enjoyed by one of Malta’s best-connected tuna ranchers. MaltaToday recently reported how a tuna ranch owned by AJD Tuna Ltd – another Azzopardi Fisheries subsidiary – currently has 21 tuna cages, when its Mepa permit specifies a maximum of only four.
When alerted to this apparent breach of permit conditions, a Mepa official went as far as to defend the irregularity, claiming that the unapproved extension by 17 extra cages was permissible because the cages involved were not currently in use.
Elsewhere, the MMA has never replied to questions sent by this newspaper regarding mariners’ complaints about the lack of nocturnal illumination of AJD Tuna Ltd’s ranch in St Paul’s Bay: again, in violation of its Mepa permit conditions.
Meanwhile, Charles Azzopardi himself has initiated multiple lawsuits against this newspaper for publishing articles about numerous illegalities associated with the local tuna ranching industry.
These now look likely to be the only “judicial processes” ever to get under way in connection with Malta’s involvement in the international bluefin tuna scandal.

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