Fuentes enjoyed unfair advantage, internal inquiry on tuna industry found

The inquiry had found that Fuentes' Malta subsidiary Mare Blu was being granted larger allocations for tuna harvesting than rival firms

Suspended: fisheries boss Andreina Fenech Farrugia
Suspended: fisheries boss Andreina Fenech Farrugia

An internal inquiry kick-started by anonymous complaints to environment minister José Herrera in 2016, had ascertained that the Fuentes subsidiary in Malta, the Mare Blu Fishing company, was being given a market advantage intentionally.

The inquiry, led by a lawyer appointed by Herrera, was held at the same time as a police investigation into diesel smuggling allegations, which eventually crossed lines with Malta’s multi-million tuna ranching industry.

Specifically, the inquiry found that Mare Blu, run by brothers Massimo and Giovann Cappitta, was granted larger allocations for the harvesting of tuna than rival firms.

“The anonymous complaint alleged that [fisheries director] Andreina Fenech Farrugia had allowed Mare Blu to make millions from larger market allocations, to the detriment of rival firms like Malta Fish Farming, and Fish & Fish,” the source said.

A spokesperson for the environment ministry said that action was taken in 2017 with a legal notice that introduced more controls on the weighting of harvested tuna.

However, at one point, the inquiry pointed out that Mare Blu was also benefiting from the fact that the spouse of one of its managers, Rita Spiteri, was a highly-placed fisheries directorate official, working by the side of Fenech Farrugia.

“In 2018, a surprise inspection was carried out on a Mare Blu vessel which found two tons of illegally harvested tuna, without BCDs (Bluefin tuna catch documentation)… the boat was not seized, and the directorate allowed Mare Blu to change the name of the captain so it would not adversely affect any of the company’s owners. The process was carried out over a matter of hours,” MaltaToday’s source said.

“You can get four fish having used the same BCD… two go to Japan, and the other two go to Spain” - former fisheries department employee

The ministry confirmed that the inquiry had also recognised this problem, saying the conflict of interest could “lead to a lack of trust in public administration”. Spiteri, who was an assistant director on regulation, was moved to assistant director of administration and support service.

All throughout the inquiry and a separate police investigation into tuna bribery allegations – now having evolved into a magisterial inquiry – Fenech Farrugia was retained as fisheries director, until last week, when she was suspended in the wake of a Spanish investigation into laundered tuna catches, which intercepted phone calls she had with José Fuentes Garcia, of the tuna ranching giant Ricardo Fuentes Group.

Spanish phone line

Yesterday, Fenech Farrugia would not explain why she had been intercepted speaking intimately to Fuentes on several occasions, using a Spanish telephone number which investigators say was also paid by Fuentes.

“I have nothing else to add to my right of reply,” Fenech Farrugia said when asked whether it was normal business for the head of an authority to have a direct phone-line paid by a business operator she was supposed to regulate.

While Fenech Farrugia has denied any wrongdoing over allegations that she could have been paid a bribe by Fuentes, the fisheries director did not inform the environment minister or his permanent secretary of the questions sent to her by Spanish newspaper El Confidencial which she received 10 days before news broke of her telephonic conversations with Fuentes. The questions were left unanswered.

Various fishermen who are critical of the fisheries directorate or Malta’s tuna farming giants, spoke candidly – although on condition of anonymity – about the state of regulatory action on fisheries in Malta.

Illegalities abound

One fisherman was especially critical of the Maltese tuna ranching industry.

“All the tuna operators are well over their allocated quotas, and they get away with illegalities while local fishermen are fined for the smallest transgression.”

The same fisherman mentioned the same episode relayed to another MaltaToday journalist by another source, of a Mare Blu vessel which was allowed to change its registered captain when it was caught with illegally harvested tuna. “This kind of advantage was not shown to some other fishers whose boats were seized when they were found with far less quantities of illegally harvested fish.”

The same fisherman alleged that tuna farms were using the same BCDs multiple times, that certain fish farms were carrying more than double the allowed quota, and that they were setting illegally-caught tuna free.

“When the tuna is harvested and sold in pieces, the BCD is not corresponding to the separate pieces of meat but to the fish itself… that is why they are using the BCDs multiple times”

“When the tuna is harvested and sold in pieces, the BCD is not corresponding to the separate pieces of meat but to the fish itself… that is why they are using the BCDs multiple times, allowing them to pass off illegally harvested fish.

“The fisheries department should be able to carry out reconciliation exercises that ensure the weight of fish listed on BCDs tallies with the total weight of the meat sold: I know that the reconciliation this year revealed that everybody was well over their quota, but they were still allowed to harvest the illegally caught tuna.”

He said that any serious criminal investigation would have instantly seized the files at the San Lucjan aquaculture centre.

Another fisherman explained what tuna ranchers can do with illegally harvested fish: “You cannot take a live tuna fish and weigh it. It is only when you harvest it that you can know its weight. As you start harvesting and cutting up the fish, you realise that you are close to reaching your quota – and that means, you will have to set loose all the rest of the tuna inside the ranch. So what do they do? Instead of setting it loose, you harvest it and sell the meat on the black market in Italy… which will eventually pass through France and finally arrive in Spain.”

Indeed, it was a similar passage that led Spanish investigators to discover a massive multi-million tuna laundering operation that spread from Italy to Spain, right to the door of the Fuentes tuna farmers in Cartagena.

A former department employee who spoke to MaltaToday also admitted that BCDs, which are issued by the department for each single tuna fish harvested, were being falsified or used multiple times for different tuna fish. “You can get four fish having used the same BCD… two go to Japan, and the other two go to Spain,” the former employee said, admitting to the potential over-abundance of harvested tuna in Malta.

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