Tuna laundering: Maltese lobby pushed away by Fuentes in Spanish case

Maltese tuna lobby appeals court’s refusal to give it representation, Fuentes files opposition to parte civile appearance

79 people were arrested in a Spanish police raid on the sale of 80,000 kilos of illegally-caught bluefin tuna
79 people were arrested in a Spanish police raid on the sale of 80,000 kilos of illegally-caught bluefin tuna

The Spanish tuna ranching giant Fuentes is preventing the Maltese tuna lobby and competitors from taking active part in a case implicating the company in a tuna laundering operation.

The Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP) had appointed a Spanish lawyer to follow an investigation into illegally-caught bluefin tuna.

79 people were arrested in a Spanish police raid on the sale of 80,000 kilos of illegally-caught bluefin tuna, acquired from Malta and Italy.

Yet the FMAP were prevented by the court from taking part in the case as a parte civile. Now Ricardo Fuentes e Hijos has filed its own opposition to an appeal by FMAP to the court decision, saying that there are no proven damages against the federation. Fuentes is also arguing that the lobby is not a legitimate party to the court process.

“We are surprised at this objection,” said FMAP chief executive Charlon Gouder. “What we’re trying to do is safeguard the integrity of the tuna industry in Malta, but also the image of Malta itself. This kind of opposition obviously prevents us from doing so.”

According to previous statements issued by Europol, no reference was made to fish fattened in any of the Bluefin tuna farms in Malta, but to fish allegedly caught in Italian and Maltese waters. “It is in our interest to make sure that this investigation has got nothing to do with our tuna fattening industry,” Gouder said. “The focus of the investigation appears to be fishing of Bluefin tuna and not to fish harvested from any of the Maltese aquaculture producers.”

Fuentes’s subsidiary in Malta, the Mare Blu company, is in fact not a member of the FMAP tuna lobby.

The Spanish companies implicated in the police operation are said to have acquired the tuna fished over and above quotas allocated to Maltese and Italian fishing companies, and falsified documentation on the tuna.

The case also led to the indefinite suspension of Malta’s fisheries department’s director-general Andreina Fenech Farrugia, who was discovered to be in direct contact with one of the Fuentes principals on a dedicated Spanish mobile phone line.

Arrests were made in various provinces by the Spanish Civil Guard and Europol in what was codenamed Operation Tarantelo.

The Spanish civil guard estimated that the criminal gang could have moved an annual volume of over 1.25 million kilos legally imported from Malta, but then also trafficked over 2.5 million kilos of overfished tuna, estimated at a value of €12 million.

The operation dates back to 2017, with the tapping of small businesses which then spread to major European tuna ranchers, namely Ricardo Fuentes e Hijos. Investigators then stumbled on a truckload of 50,000 kgs of allegedly illegal tuna from Italy.

The investigations were centred in the region of Valencia, while security forces from Italy and France took part in the operation.

“Investigations revealed that the fish was being traded illegally in Spain, but imported into the country through French harbours, after being caught in Italian and Maltese waters,” Europol said.

Fish caught in Maltese waters, it said, were illegally imported using documents from legal fishing and authorised farms. On the other hand, fish caught in Italian waters arrived in Spain without documents or inspections.

“Although most of the fish was caught in Malta and Italy, in Spanish waters there were also unauthorised catches, in this case, the illegally fished Bluefin tuna was transported in false bottoms under the deck of a vessel,” Europol added.

It said this illegal Bluefin tuna market was up to 2.5 million kgs every year, double the annual volume of the legal trade.

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