Malta’s Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs was this week openly accused of “cooking” export figures in order to conceal its role in an alleged international laundering racket of bluefin tuna: a fish facing imminent danger of extinction, according to international conservation groups.
The accusations are levelled by ATRT/ST, a consultancy firm whose analysts were involved in the inception of Malta’s tuna ranching industry in the 1990s.
Among other things, ATRT accuses Malta of supplying incorrect information to both ICCAT (the international tuna conservation agency) and Eurostat, and of failing to validate documents in order to conceal the origins of bluefin tuna transhipped through Malta, so that the commodity could be passed off by Japanese customs as “Maltese re-exports”, when it was merely in transit from third countries.
Two weeks ago, MaltaToday raised questions about Maltese exports to Japan for the period June 2007 to March 2008, after comparing official trade records from Japanese and European sources, with an ATRT estimate of Malta’s live tuna biomass over the same period.
According to Japan’s declarations to ICCAT (the international tuna conservation agency) and from its customs and finance ministry statements, Malta would have exported nearly 12 million kg of bluefin tuna over that period. ATRT argued that this was physically impossible, because Malta’s total export capability (i.,e., the amount of live fish held in local ranches at the time) could not exceed 6.4 million kg... and after the MareBlu farm lost an estimated 1.5 million kg in a storm in October 2007, the actual figure was likelier to be less than 5 million kg.
Calculated upon last year’s market price of EUR20 a kilo, this alleged discrepancy works out at around EUR100 million.
Responding to these allegations, Fisheries Director Dr Anthony Gruppetta confirmed that Malta’s exports figures exceeded 11 million kg, and apart from questioning the original ATRT estimate of 6.4 million kg, he also argued that the MaltaToday article failed to take into account some 5 million kgs’ worth of transhipments from third countries to Japan via Maltese ports.
However, the Fisheries Director himself agrees that such exports should not be listed in Japan’s official records for Maltese imports. How this came to be the case remains an unanswered question.
Commenting to MaltaToday, ATRT’s CEO Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi observes: “With reference to 2008 imports of bluefin tuna from Malta by Japan, as stated by Japan's Ministry of Finance-Customs, we are still bemused by the fact that – such fish having been transhipped at a Maltese port onto containers bound to Japan – Malta would have not have validated the original Statistical Documents issued by the Flag Countries of the fishing vessels having caught such fish; but rather, issued re-export certificates, thus confounding Japanese Customs as to the exact origin of the commodity being imported into Japan.”
ATRT goes on to ask: “How is it possible for anyone to issue a re-export certificate for a merchandise that was never imported, and was thus in mere transit?”
Apart from the issue of transhipments listed by Japanese customs as re-imports from Malta, local records of live tuna imports to Malta do not tally with Malta’s own declarations to the European Commission, and consequently to ICCAT.
In his reply last Wednesday, Dr Gruppetta referred to a quantity of live bluefin tuna (210 tonnes) caught for Maltese ranches by a Moroccan fishing vessel Le Marsouin, and inputted into Maltese cages in 2007.
“This bluefin tuna is still in cages since it was not harvested in 2007 but was carried over to 2008. These amounts were confirmed by the Moroccan authorities during the 2007 season,” Gruppetta wrote.
But there is no trace of any imports of live bluefin tuna from Morocco in Malta’s declarations to the European Commission, or in Eurostat figures for Malta’s imports over the same period.
“According to the EU’s Bi-annual Statistical Export and re-export Declaration corresponding to its imports of BFT during the period July to December 2007, there is strictly no trace of such fish having been imported live into any Maltese tuna ranches,” Mielgo Bregazzi observes. “The question is, why did the Maltese government conceal this information during the coordination meetings held between the Member States and the European Commission delegations during ICCAT’s 20th Regular Meeting?”
If correct, ATRT’s claims suggest that transhipments are being used as a front to conceal irregular exports of tuna. Genuine Maltese re-exports would be counted under Malta’s ICCAT quota – which is far from exhausted, as Malta’s tuna fishing industry is largely traditional and does not employ large purse-seiner vessels. Other countries such as Turkey, Morocco and Korea, on the other hand, are understood to be close to exhausting their own quotas, and therefore cannot legally export their excess tuna to Japan or anywhere else. According to this hypothesis, by failing to validate the statistical documents, Malta would be an accessory to an international tuna laundering racket.
The Fisheries Division is currently examining the Japanese import data before responding to these allegations.