It’s been a year since Malta emerged as a central figure in a €25 million illegal tuna trade across Europe, with two leading operators and state authorities allegedly involved in the cross-country crime.
A magisterial inquiry was opened, and the Fisheries Director-General paid the political price. However, an endless line of controversies from the government – including a political crisis that saw the office of the Prime Minister linked to the assassination of a journalist – means it’s gone by unnoticed 365 days later.
Lovin Malta is taking another look at the case to break down its essential components and see what’s happened next.
1. So, what’s the story?
The revelations formed part of a broader pan-European investigation, dubbed Operation-Tarantelo, into a €25 million illegal tuna trade which saw the seizure of more than 80,000 kilos of bluefin tuna and the arrest of 79 individuals.
Spanish companies allegedly acquired the tuna fished over and above allocated quotas to Malta (which has the largest share in the Mediterranean) and Italy.
Leaked Spanish Police documents named two Maltese operators, Malta Fish Farming Ltd. (MFF) and Mare Blu Ltd., as critical suppliers of tuna illegally caught and fattened in Malta and sent over to Spain.
It is believed that illegal operators would either pass off their tuna as a cheaper species, forge documentation, or transfer catches between different cages.
The operators were allegedly able to bypass EU quotas through the help of Malta’s Fisheries Directorate, in particular its Director-General Andreina Fenech Farrugia.
2. Who was involved?
The director of Mare Blu, Jose Fuentes Garcia, is the owner of Spanish tuna ranching giant Fuentes e Hijos. He allegedly held close ties with the then-Fisheries Director Andreina Fenech Farrugia.
Transcripts even hinted at potential bribes in return for Fenech Farrugia’s influence and higher fish quotas.
“I am in Bulgaria just for you,” she was quoted as saying. “You have to pay me because I have a meeting with the [director] general of Brussels to fix things.”
Spanish telecoms provider Telefonica confirmed to the investigators that Fenech Farrugia even made use of a SIM card that was registered by Ricardo Fuentes e Hijos.
Meanwhile, Fuentes made use of a second mobile phone that investigators believe was only used to speak to Fenech Farrugia.
Malta Fish Farming Ltd. (MFF), headed by former Elbros owner Saviour Ellul, was also named in the probe, allegedly transporting illegal tuna to Spain through Italy and then Marseilles in France.
MFF has categorically died the claims, as has Fenech Farrugia.
3. Where there any consequences and did authorities know of the million-Euro scheme?
Fenech Farrugia was the only one to bear any consequences, with then-Environment Minister Jose Herrera suspending her from duties after the Maltese Federation of Aquaculture Producers immediately called for her resignation.
MFAP was swift in denouncing Fenech Farrugia. However, it was not similarly forthright when it came to one of its own members, MFF Ltd.
Fenech Farrugia has long maintained her innocence, insisting that she was “singled out” in a wide-reaching investigation, that payments made to her in return for quota increases were always regular and that the published transcripts were poorly translated to Spanish and easily misinterpreted.
Fenech Farrugia’s claims that she had reported Mare Blu to the authorities hold some water.
Lovin Malta had uncovered that Fisheries Directorate director Randall Caruana filed two police reports, one to the Economic Crimes Unit and another to the Administrative Law Enforcement Unit.
The alleged crimes included making use of an unlicensed fishing vessel for commercial purposes, fishing outside the legal zones, not rendering their fish traceable, keeping fish that was either caught illegally or in amounts that exceeded that permitted by the stock protection laws, and recidivism.
The people recommended for prosecution were directors Francesco Fuentes, Jose Fuentes Garcia and John Cappitta, managers Pedro Martinez Gonzalez, Massimo Cappitta and Peter Paul Spiteri, and registered captain Mario Frendo.
Several messages seen by this newsroom also showed that some officials at the Ministry, including now-FMAP spokesperson Charlon Gouder, Minister Jose Herrera and Permanent Secretary Joe Caruana, were well aware of the numerous abuses taking place in Malta’s fish farms.
4. What has happened since?
Well… not much.
A magisterial inquiry was opened in November 2018 and seems to be still on-going. No one has been charged with a crime, while Fenech Farrugia remains suspended from the role.
Rather than severely clamp down on the industry, then-Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries Clint Camilleri (now Gozo Minister) increased Malta’s national tuna-catch quota by 34,000 kilos just months after the scandal broke.
Previously, the quota was distributed solely among the larger operators. However, smaller operators now also have access to the lucrative industry. Authorities say this will help enforcement, but it remains to be seen how this will work in action.
The “punishments” don’t stop there.
In May 2019, the Planning Authority approved a permit that will see tuna cages of Azzopardi Fisheries (who was not named in the scandal) increase from 12 to 24.
From the operators’ end, FMAP has continued with their battle to get representation and take an active part in the Spanish case. They have been rejected on repeated occasions, with Fuentes even battling against them.
The case, it appears, has dried up, despite the published evidence against the people involved. With newly-appointed Prime Minister Robert Abela already looking to address past injustices, maybe the oft-forgotten tuna scandal might be an excellent place to start.