Malta’s €25 million tuna claim under investigation
Malta’s claims concerning some €25 million worth of live bluefin tuna, caught in 2007, are currently the subject of an international investigation after being openly rubbished by conservation groups, MaltaToday can confirm.
In a high level meeting in Morocco over the past week, Malta struggled unsuccessfully to convince officials of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna – the inter-governmental fishery organisation, currently responsible for the conservation of tuna – of the veracity of its declarations regarding the amount of live fish carried over to 2008 from 2007.
ICCAT and its signatory states met on November 17 in Marrakech, where environmentalists and industry exponents battled for a week over the fate of the bluefin tuna, listed as a critically endangered species on account of over-fishing.
The controversy concerning Malta centres on government’s claims that €25 million worth of tuna, 1,350 tonnes in all, was fished in 2007 and carried over to 2008, and is currently being held in four separate tuna ranches: a declaration denied by conservation groups.
MaltaToday is reliably informed that this claim, made by both the government and Richard Cachia Caruana (Malta’s permanent representative to the EU), was not accepted by the compliance committee of ICCAT, after a detailed analysis submitted by Greenpeace revealed contradictions in the information supplied by the Maltese fisheries ministry.
ICCAT’s compliance committee will therefore be convening in March 2009 specifically to investigate the Malta’s carry-over declarations.
Both the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace say Malta’s carry-over of 1,350 tonnes of tuna is “anomalous” and “impossible”, because it is incompatible with the maximum capacity of the cages in Malta, among other reasons.
According to information supplied by the fisheries ministry, Malta would have caged a total of 4,253 tonnes in 2008 (worth over €80 million), including 1,346 tonnes of live tuna that was fished back in 2007 and carried over to 2008.
However, a detailed analysis of the government’s claims reveal that this quantity of tuna would simply not fit into the facilities specified by the ministry in its declarations to the European Commission.
ICCAT will have to determine whether this large quantity of tuna was legally caught by authorised fishing vessels, or whether it is undeclared tuna, caught over and above the national quota of the countries concerned, to be laundered through false paperwork in Malta.
Every ICCAT contracting party state has a tuna quota which determines the limits of their tuna catch. Critics fear that certain countries are overfishing, and passing off their overfished tuna to countries whose shipping fleets are small and which therefore do not surpass their quota.
The four farms cited by the ministry in connection with this 1,350 tonnes of carry-over are Ta’ Mattew Fish Farm, Fish and Fish Ltd, Malta Fish Farms and AJD Tuna Ltd.
Government and conservationists are at loggerheads over the real capacity of these cages. Ta’ Mattew’s cage #2 is declared to currently contain 415 tonnes of live tuna, but industry observers say the same cage can only take some 290 tonnes of fish, around 40% less than the claimed current capacity.
Similarly, cage #5 of AJD Tuna is reported to currently hold 314 tonnes of live tuna. But observers say the cage cannot hold more than a maximum of 188 tonnes. Cage #6 of the same ranch is reported to hold a further 308 tonnes of bluefin tuna, once again disputed by conservationists.
In all these cases, government says the cages were used to farm tuna from foreign purse-seiners, intended for re-export. For example, the Fish & Fish tuna ranch holds what government claims are 210 tonnes (€4.2 million) of tuna caught by a Moroccan purse seiner, Le Marsouin.
However, since this fish was not caught by an EU-flagged vessel, it should have been considered by Malta and the EU as an import of live bluefin tuna.
As MaltaToday has already reported, no trace exists of this Moroccan import on the Eurostat trade database, or in the EU’s biannual statistics which record all imported tuna.
And yet, this consignment still found its way into an official declaration by the European Commission to ICCAT earlier this year: not as carry-over, but as part of the total farmed tuna for 2007.
Sources within the Commission admitted this was a mistake, and that the government had declared it to be still present in cages belonging to Fish & Fish. However, the 210 tonnes in question were never registered as an import.
Joe Borg accused of ‘threatening’ small countries
Ironically, however, ICCAT is itself now under pressure, after the surprise decision at the Marrakech meeting to set higher quotas than expected for the critically endangered bluefin tuna – an immensely lucrative fish, which can fetch up to €20 a kilo on the Japanese market.
The decision appears to have been taken against the advice of ICCAT’s own scientists, who had recommended much lower quotas, and in defiance of a report earlier this year which lambasted the Mediterranean fishery as being “out of control”.
European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg has been singled out for specific criticism by conservationists, who accuse the former Maltese foreign minister of threatening small countries with trade retaliations, unless they supported radical increases in tuna fishing quotas.
These allegations have been widely reported in the international media, which also denounced the Morocco meeting as a “mockery of science”.
Contacted yesterday, a spokesperson for the Commissioner told MaltaToday that Dr Borg would not be responding to NGOs’ allegations of having exerted undue pressure on countries to achieve a consensus.
Instead, the Commission limited itself to expressing satisfaction with the consensus reached.
“The Commission pushed for a very comprehensive package, which has been embraced by every member country,” the spokesperson said. “Reductions in Total Allowable Catch alone are not sufficient to guarantee stocks recovery; this is why the package achieved this week also concentrates on the implementation of new control measures for the monitoring and ensured compliance on issues regarding fishing and farming capacity, etc.”
And in a press release issued yesterday, Joe Borg claimed that the agreement would ensure that 2009 will be a “Year of Compliance” among ICCAT countries, including Malta.
“ICCAT’s revised recovery plan demands further sacrifices from the fishing industry, with major immediate cuts in catch levels and fishing seasons, and reductions in both fishing and farming capacity to follow,” he said.
“It is a sign of the seriousness of the situation, and the maturity of all the participants, that it has been possible to achieve a consensus on these steps.”