Fisheries department files criminal action against Malta tuna ranchers

Maltese fisheries filed criminal proceedings against Malta’s top tuna ranchers, just as Brussels opened infringement proceedings over a failure to comply with EU tuna rules

The Maltese fisheries department filed criminal proceedings against Malta’s top tuna ranchers, just as Brussels opened infringement proceedings over a failure to comply with EU tuna rules.

The criminal action was filed in April against David Azzopardi and Joseph Caruana, directors of Fish & Fish Ltd and Emma Navigation Ltd, the agent of the ship Mikela I; and Anthony and Carmel Azzopardi, directors of Malta Mariculture and AJD Tuna, which leased the ship Thor Beamer from Malta Towage.

The two companies and their directors are accused of having acquired an amount of Bluefin tuna that exceeding the quotas allocated to them.

The companies are accused of having illegally caged this tuna back in September 2019, when according to ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) rules, the excess tuna had to be released by 7 September, 2019.

The companies are accused of having retained their illegal quotas against clear instructions from the fisheries department.

The two fish farms, which keep tuna inside ranches at sea until they grow bigger in size so that they are then harvested and exported to Japanese markets, were not allowed to keep the excess fish in their cages.

In a bid to circumvent the quotas, the two companies are accused of having kept the fish “in tow” in cages that were moved around at sea, giving the impression that the fish was not being kept in cage but transported from one place to the other.

The criminal action, filed in April, anticipated European Commission infringement actions launched this week, accusing Malta of failing to ensure the presence of an effective monitoring, control and inspection system in Bluefin tuna farms.

The two farms say they purchased the fish legally from EU vessels, which fish could not be caged after 7 September 2019 because Malta failed to obtain from the European Union an increase of its input capacity.

“In view of the fact that this scenario is quite unique and the fish purchased were legal, the companies concerned have made several requests for the commercialisation of the said fish, which were not acceded to,” Charlon Gouder, the CEO of the Federation for Maltese Aquaculture Producers, said.

But Gouder insisted that the fish was on tow and not caged, for 10 months.

Both companies denied they had exceeded input quotas or tried to circumvent their quotas. “On the contrary all purchases were made within their quota limits of the Aquaculture Operational Permit, authorised by the flag state of catching vessel and calculated against the fishing quota,” Gouder said.

Both companies also denied having received orders from the fisheries department to release the fish. “During the past 10 months these fish were continuously under the supervision of a National Observer on board the towing vessels in line with the ICCAT Recommendation 19-04,” Gouder said.

The FMAP is challenging the interpretation of the rules on ‘fish on tow’. “Member states in the ICCAT Convention are still discussing possible legal amendments to address at the international level similar cases like the one in Malta.”

Malta’s fish farms made over €228 million – for a total of 17.3 million kilogrammes of tuna – in 2018 selling tuna farmed in Maltese waters, selling over 90% of the stock in Japan. The highly lucrative industry accounts for 80% of Malta’s fishing industry.

The Commission said that several audit and verification missions carried out by European Commission officials had identified a number of serious shortcomings, including failure to allow access to inspectors to waters under Maltese jurisdiction during a specific control and inspection programme.

According to the infringement proceedings, Malta had also delayed investigations, had limited the number of random control checks and had also failed to sanction operators.

Gouder told the press on Friday that the infringement proceedings were “unfair”.

“It is unfair, to say the least, that we get accused of something that never happened. No operator ever stopped any official, be it from the local fisheries department or from the EU, from making his or her own verifications. We always collaborated and that is what we will continue doing because it is also in our interest,” he told The Times.

He continued: “There were times when the control visits took place at a very critical time for the industry, when we were very busy with preparations or at the height of the season, but we never turned our back on them. We always collaborated.”

The Commission accused Malta of not taking the necessary steps to address the deficiencies that had been pointed out to it and gave the country four months to address the short-comings raised. In the absence of such, the European Commission will step up the action with a reasoned opinion.

Gouder said Malta’s bluefin tuna operators had an excellent reputation in ICCAT and that the operators want to speed up the process of investigating anyone caught with large quantities of fish, with sanctions for anyone guilty of administrative breaches which fall short of a criminal offence.