Tuna ranch insider: widespread cover-up of illegalities

A whistleblower working in the tuna farming industry told MaltaToday about the abuse inside the business, detailing how it benefitted from lax enforcement and got away with flagrant abuses

Lifting the lid on the egregious practices of certain tuna ranching companies, carries with it dangerous consequences
Lifting the lid on the egregious practices of certain tuna ranching companies, carries with it dangerous consequences

A whistleblower working in the tuna farming industry has spoken to MaltaToday about the abuse inside the business, describing how it benefitted from lax enforcement and got away with flagrant abuses while government officials are duped or even look the other way.

The insider recounted instances where enforcement officers were being “misled to the advantage of tuna ranchers”, allowing them to make millions in euros on undeclared tuna catches and illegal harvesting of tuna.

He described in detail the monitoring of tuna that is caged, before being fattened and finally harvested.

“Each cage holds hundreds of tuna pieces, and a label is attached to each cage – yet none get sealed. The reference number will tell the history of each cage, the origin of the tuna, and the quantity. But the reality is… the labels can be easily exchanged onto other tuna cages,” he said.

The sad state of monitoring, recently exemplified by revealing instances in a National Audit Office inquiry, was also a key reason why companies could get away with certain abuses.

“Without stringent regulation and constant monitoring, the field is pretty much open for these abuses to take place. When a tuna ranch owner is asked to release caged tuna back into the open sea – this being necessary to respect the national quotas of how much fish can be caught and killed – the operation has to be observed by a representative of the Fisheries Department, as well as one representative of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

“But once again… the truth is that from the surface, it is just impossible to ascertain the number of tuna being released. Remember that the diver used in this operation to calculate the number of tuna being released, is also employed by the tuna rancher.”

The insider said he knew of several instances when releases from tuna cages were carried out… but no tuna was, in fact, released from the cages.

“I know that on particular occasions, it was archived films from past releases that were presented to show the alleged release of tuna.”

The insider also said that the fisheries department was facing problems of its own, when enforcement officials recently appointed to fill in urgently needed vacancies, had a glaring conflict of interest because of their family relationships to people employed with fishing companies.
Even then, he said that after monitors are no longer on site to inspect the harvesting, the rules of the game change.

“When the tuna is fished out of the cage and onto the reefers to be killed and frozen, a lot more unaccounted killing takes place after the monitors leave. If the freezers do not get properly examined by the department’s monitors – and they do not get checked properly – then you can rest assured that they will carry even more tuna than what is being recorded.

“And what I can still not understand is why fisheries enforcement officials are not realising that some farmers are just dumping the head, fins and tail of the tuna at sea. It is quite incredible that this has never been picked up by them.”

The whistleblower insisted on anonymity, explaining how lifting the lid on the egregious practices of certain tuna ranching companies, carried with it dangerous consequences. “Millions of euros are involved here, and few, if anyone, is willing to risk everything to speak about something like this. Who can you trust in a situation where underpaid government officials end up having a price of their own?”

Malta was only recently rocked by a scandal that started in Spain, after police released summaries of phone taps showing the Maltese fisheries director Andreina Fenech Farrugia speaking intimately to a director of the Spanish tuna giant Fuentes, which owns the Mare Blu company in Malta, on a Spanish phone-line paid by the Fuentes company itself.

Fenech Farrugia has since then been suspended and continues to insist (Letters, page 19) that she has never accepted any bribes from Fuentes as alleged in the phone-taps’ summaries published in the Spanish press.

“Everyone in the business will tell you that Andreina was close to Fuentes… you can understand why from the recent press reports,” the insider said.

“What I cannot understand is why fisheries enforcement officers were stopped, specifically, from making surprise inspections at fish shops and restaurants where they can monitor their sales of tuna. When this decision was taken… private fishermen just went directly to the shops to sell undeclared tuna catches.” 

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