Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 12 April 2009

The 5,000 tonnes that got away

Some months ago, PBS programme Dissett hosted a discussion about the local bluefin tuna industry.
Not the sexiest topic in the world, I admit… but an important one, seeing as Malta’s tuna industry generates millions of euros in revenue, and that the bluefin tuna itself is currently facing imminent stocks collapse on account of rampant, over-fishing throughout the Mediterranean.
Dissett’s presenter, Reno Bugeja, enjoys a reputation as PBS’s least biased journalist. Personally I have no reason to doubt his credibility… but I did think it was rather strange that he would talk briefly about certain “allegations” which appeared in our newspaper the previous summer, without explaining what these allegations even were.
The closest we got was when Reno asked his guests to comment on an “alleged discrepancy” involving Malta’s official bluefin tuna exports for 2007-2008. It was a valid question, but no answer was ever forthcoming. Instead, the guests discussed an altogether different discrepancy relating to bluefin tuna – i.e., that Europe’s “total allowable catch” was roughly half the amount officially inputted into European tuna ranches last year.
This is an interesting statistic, and illustrates what we all already knew anyway – that European countries are not doing enough to enforce fishing laws, with the result that (according to a WWF statement issued this week) tuna stocks will now almost certainly collapse by 2012. But this had nothing to do with Reno’s question. Nor is it the only time PBS has “discussed Malta’s tuna exports”… without actually discussing Malta’s tuna exports, if you know what I mean.

Before elaborating, a word about the actual allegations themselves. Between 2007 and 2008, Malta re-exported just under 12,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna products to Japan. Of this amount, 6,700 was fattened in Maltese ranches, and there is no doubt (at least, none that I know of) that those re-exports were genuine. The remaining 5,000 tonnes, on the other hand, cannot realistically be defined as “re-exports” to begin with. The relevant international regulation to this effect defines a “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” (my emphasis).
But the 5,000 tonnes in question do not show up on Eurostat’s records of Malta’s imports for the corresponding time-period; and the Fisheries Division has never produced any other official import certificates to account for the same 5,000 tonnes.

This was independently confirmed by the European Commission, which told MaltaToday that: “it is possible that the 5,000-tonne figure includes fish which would be defined from a customs standpoint as being ‘in transit’, and which would therefore not qualify as being re-exported in customs records” – another fact conveniently overlooked by PBS in its reporting on this issue.

By the way: at the time of export, the going international price for bluefin tuna was €20 a kilo… which brings us to a few basic mathematical observations:
One tonne = 1,000 kg;
5,000 tonnes = 5,000,000 kg;
5,000,000 kg = €100 million.

But back to PBS. Last Monday, the 8 ‘o’ clock news once again made reference to “allegations made in a local newspaper” – without explaining what these allegations were – and quoted Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg as saying he had “evaluated the figures provided by the government”, and saw nothing amiss.
What figures? I was unaware of any new figures pertaining to Malta’s exports for 2008, so I called the Commissioner’s spokesperson, Nathalie Charbonneau, for an update. It turned out that the “figures” the Commissioner had “evaluated” were actually the results of inspections by the Community Fisheries Control Agency (CFCA) on Maltese ranches earlier this year. It also turned out that the information had been passed onto PBS on 2 March – i.e., five weeks before the item was actually broadcast.

Quick question: why wait five weeks to release Nathalie Charbonneau’s comments? Could it perchance be that PBS wanted to influence the outcome of numerous libel suits brought against this newspaper… some of which just happened to have commenced the week before?
I guess we will never know. But the real question is another: what relevance could the results of CFCA inspections on Maltese ranches, carried out in 2009, possibly have to the issue of 5,000 tonnes of tuna registered as “Maltese exports to Japan”… in 2008?
Again, the two issues are completely unrelated. Not only that – but the news item once again highlighted a mistake made by the Commission, which had accidentally omitted to include a reference to 270 tonnes of live tuna carried over from last year’s season to 2009.
This, the national station hinted, may have been the source of the misunderstanding to begin with.

What rubbish. Those 270 tonnes of live fish were never part of the 5,000 tonnes exported in 2008. How could they have been, if they were carried over to this year, and are probably still swimming around in circles as I write?
By my count, that is three gross misrepresentations of entirely unrelated issues, in what I can only conclude is a concerted effort by PBS to confuse the matter beyond recognition. Why, I wonder? What interest could the government-owned station possibly have, in twisting the facts of a case which would, if accurately reported, be hugely embarrassing to the same government?

Ok, enough about the station formerly known as Xandir Malta. Let us now turn to the crux of the matter. What’s the big deal, you might ask, if somewhere along the export chain, a product got itself passed off as a Maltese export, when in fact it should have been registered as a transhipment?
Well, this is theoretically where the European Commission should come in. Joe Borg is directly responsible for the EU’s implementation of the “tuna recovery plan” – supposedly aimed at saving the bluefin tuna from what looks like a now inescapable slide towards extinction. The plan itself has already been laughed to scorn by conservationists worldwide, mainly for setting quotas which are considerably higher than the maximum recommended by scientists. So if even this half-hearted attempt is routinely ignored by contracting parties such as Malta… then what chance in hell can the bluefin tuna possibly have of actually surviving?

If the European Commission is to be taken seriously in its attempts to conserve the bluefin tuna, it can hardly ignore a possible mis-registration of 5,000 tonnes of the same fish by Malta. For one thing, it would send a powerful message to the remaining 27 member states – i.e., that the Commission does not really care how Community fish exports are documented. This is turn would be an open invitation to an international free-for-all: just what the doctor ordered, if the intention was to guarantee the untimely extinction of the bluefin tuna, instead of trying to protect it.
Another reason involves the tuna recovery plan itself, which depends for its unlikely success on a process of data collecting and verifying, whereby every kilo of every fish has to be accountable at every point of its trajectory: from the moment it is lifted from the water, to when it is served up, pan-fried with a dash of lemon, on your plate.
Well, if €100 million worth of the same fish gets wrongly classified in the process… how can we afterwards say with absolute certainty that the tuna we buy from shops and in restaurants has indeed been legally and sustainably caught, as the Commissioner would like us to believe?

Either way, given the amount of misinformation dished out by PBS over the past few months, I think we are owed an explanation once and for all. Were those 5,000 tonnes of Maltese re-exports above aboard, or weren’t they? Go on, Joe, surely it can’t be that hard to answer…


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