It takes tuna to tango...

Ah yes. The small matter of why an investigation into Malta’s tuna industry took place all those yonks ago in 2010, but was unaccountably (in all senses of the word) kept under wraps for the next decade… and even, to be sprung out of nowhere only because it serves a partisan-political purpose for the MP tabling it in Parliament...


Ever get the feeling of déjà vu? You know: when a thought takes slightly longer to travel across one of your brain’s two hemispheres… so that, when it finally sinks in, it feels as though you’ve already thought that thought before… even though… um… you haven’t?

It might not be the best description ever, but it should still give you a rough idea of how I felt as I read the following in a news report earlier this week:

“On 12 November 2010, a letter was sent from the Commissioner to the Maltese government on the implementation of the Bluefin tuna industry, in which it was suggested that the Maltese authorities perform an administrative inquiry […] a few days later, the environment ministry’s permanent secretary had requested an internal audit […] The investigation was prompted by a letter to the EU’s fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki, which reported cases of non-compliance, and lack of controls under then director Andreina Fenech Farrugia…”

And then, to cap it all… “The IAID investigation revealed serious irregularities, amongst others: Caging figures for 2008 and carry over quantities were inconsistent with data provided by the tuna farms, with no reconciliation made by the Fisheries Control Directorate’s scientific officer of some 1,103 pieces of tuna; Shortcomings and omissions in respect of fisheries control and enforcement of tuna operations in 2008, because of an inability to reconcile data of farm operators on a periodical basis; No invoices for some 175,000kg of tuna sold to Turkey in 2008 by Malta Fish Farming Ltd; [etc, etc]”

That’s funny: I could have sworn I’d already read all that somewhere before… and quite a long time ago, too. Actually no, wait… it’s coming back to me now. I don’t remember reading all that before… as much as writing it. There is, in fact, not a single detail in the 2010 report, tabled by Jason Azzopardi in Parliament on Monday, that wasn’t mentioned somewhere in this newspaper way back in 2007, 2008, and 2009: i.e., before that report was even drawn up.

It was, in fact, ‘inconsistencies between caging figures and data provided by the industry’ that led to those articles being written in the first place. It all started with the observation – originally by the World Wildlife Fund in 2007 – that Malta had miraculously managed to export more tuna to Japan than its tuna ranches could (officially) hold.

This led to an examination of Malta’s export data, which also revealed that – apart from ‘caging figures’ – a substantial percentage of that tuna had been labelled as ‘re-exports’… raising suspicion that some of it may have been illegally caught by other countries, and laundered through Malta’s official channels.

The same articles also went into quite some detail regarding some of the individual cases highlighted in that report (and, separately, in other reports that are only emerging now): for instance, the ‘storm damage’ that freed some 600 tonnes of tuna on the day before an inspection in 2009. The eight million euro worth of tuna that were held by Japanese customs owing to paperwork discrepancies; and even the above-mentioned 175,000kg of tuna sold to Turkey in 2008.

All these cases, and many others besides, were placed in the public domain (and not just by me, in case you’re wondering: a lot more came out of an in-depth report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) more than 10 years ago. Yet it is also now – long, long after multiple lawsuits were filed against me by all the operators in that industry, with the (successful) goal of shutting this newspaper up – that an MP (who was a cabinet minister at the time in question) suddenly remembers that… Oh yes: those articles about corruption in the tuna sector 10 years ago? The ones my government had denied so vehemently in 2007, 2008 and 2009? Well, they were all along correct. And here is a top-secret, never-previously-published, EU-commissioned investigation report to prove it…

Honestly, it is good thing that I followed someone’s advice recently, and started attending an anger-management course. Otherwise, I would have probably ended up smashing my keyboard to atoms in a fit of unbridled, apoplectic fury… for the second time in only two years.
But now, I know better. Now, I know that I have to take a deep breath… count slowly to 10… exhale profusely… and only then, say what I have to say.

So here goes. De-e-e-e-p breath. One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… 10. Lo-o-o-ong exhalation…. And…

There. Now I need another de-e-e-ep breath…. and to repeat, for as many as times as necessary… “I-will-not-smash-my-keyboard”… “I-will-not-smash-my-keyboard”… “I-will-not-smash-my-keyboard”…

Well, what do you know? This anger management thingie does work after all. My fit of rage is over, and… oh look, I still have a keyboard to finish this article on. So… where was I?

Ah yes. The small matter of why an investigation into Malta’s tuna industry took place all those yonks ago in 2010, but was unaccountably (in all senses of the word) kept under wraps for the next decade… and even, to be sprung out of nowhere only because it serves a partisan-political purpose for the MP tabling it in Parliament...

And that is but the first of many questions: probably not even the most important one (though I must confess it does feel that way to me, because… well, that information would have made a somewhat humungous difference to all those lawsuits I mentioned earlier, don’t ya think?)

But there is also the one about how an investigation could find so many serious irregularities in a multi-million trade involving what was, at the time, an endangered species… without anyone seeming to face any consequence or repercussion whatsoever, ever since. There is now abundant evidence – not that there wasn’t in 2008, but anyway – that a substantial quantity of bluefin tuna was illegally taken from the wild, and exported under the guise of legal, authenticated catch. And in 2009, the bluefin tuna was on the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species…

On a separate level, there are also questions about how other media approached the same issue, all those years ago. As already noted: these things have all been in the public domain since 2007 at the earliest. Some of them were even picked up by the international press. Yet how was the entire matter reported by other sections of the local press?

I won’t bother with other independent newspapers, because quite frankly it’s up to them to decide whether, or to what extent, to report anything at all. But the national broadcaster is a slightly different kettle of fish. And I distinctly remember a news report on TVM – around December 2008, or thereabouts – which claimed that the European Commission had looked into the export discrepancies… and had concluded that they didn’t exist.

Naturally, I can’t blame PBS for being entirely ignorant of the 2010 investigation – it hadn’t actually been commissioned yet. But for the same reason: how could TVM news report that the Commission had investigated the matter, when (with hindsight) we now know that it hadn’t? And how could the Commission conclude that the irregularities were non-existent, when its investigation had yet to even begin?

Looked back upon all these years later, only two possibilities spring to mind (three, if you cater for the possibility of time-travel). Either a Commission spokesman lied to TVM in 2008… or TVM simply made up the part about the Commission’s ‘absolution’ of Malta’s tuna trade.

This becomes painstakingly clearer still when you consider how the 2010 investigation was followed up. “[A 2013] memo reveals that the European Commission’s director-general for fisheries and maritime affairs, Lowri Evans, had remarked in a meeting with Malta’s permanent representative Marlene Bonnici, saying that ‘compared to two years ago, the situation of the Maltese fishery is ‘completely transformed’’ and that DG MARE was ‘delighted by the progress attained by the Maltese control authorities’ – Evans said that the situation two years earlier had put “the Maltese fishery… in a very bad place”.

As far as I can see, that’s a pretty clear confirmation of irregularities dating up to 2010… after which, things improved by 2013. So how, exactly, could Malta’s government-owned, State broadcaster have told us all that the Commission had come to the clean opposite conclusion in 2008?

This raises some other questions, which may in turn even answer the first one: i.e., why this EU-commissioned report was kept a secret for so long. Just as this contradiction is (now) visible to me, it must have been perfectly visible to the European Commission at the time.

Admittedly, it is a bit much to expect the Fisheries Commissioner to sit back and watch ‘L-Ahbarijiet Tat-Tmienja’ every day on TVM… but the Commission as a whole would (or should) have surely been concerned that extensive illegalities in Malta’s tuna trade were being covered up by the Maltese authorities, right under its nose. All the more so, when you also factor in that these irregularities were threatening the success of the Commission’s own ‘recovery plan’ for bluefin tuna.

And yet… what action did the European Commission take? (This is, after all, a text-book ‘rule of law’ issue here.) As I recall – and bear in mind I was being sued at the time – my press questions to the DG MARE always seemed to reach a dead end. So even back then, I wondered: what was making the European Commission so clearly reluctant to look too deeply into this particular issue…?

I’ve already said this in another recent article (and probably also in a couple I wrote 12 years ago) but a tuna laundering operation on that scale – and including so many other countries apart from Malta – cannot realistically be boiled down to the corrupt practices of one, single regulatory authority, in only one EU member state. Clearly, it takes a little more than that. Clearly, (because ‘happiness is a warm pun’, etc.)… it takes tuna to tango.

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