Updated 1.30 with government reaction

A network of 79 individuals allegedly illegally selling bluefin tuna caught in Malta was busted in an operation involving enforcement agencies from a number of countries, the Times of Malta has learned.

More than 80,000 kilos of illicit bluefin tuna were seized and it is estimated the network trafficked more than 2.5 million kilos of the species a year. An estimated €5 profit per kilo meant an income of €12.5 million.

“The volume of this illegal trade is double the annual volume of the legal trade, which is estimated to be 1.25 million kilos,” Europol said.

The international mission, Operation Tarantelo, was conducted by the Spanish Guardia Civil with the support of the French, Italian, Maltese and Portuguese authorities. 

It is estimated the network trafficked more than 2.5 million kilos of the species a year.

The suspects were arrested on Tuesday, with the Guardia Civil seizing more than 80,000 kilos of bluefin tuna, €500,000 in cash and seven luxury vehicles.

Fish caught in Maltese waters was illegally imported using documents from legal fishing and authorised farms, Europol said.

Investigations revealed the fish was being traded illegally in Spain but imported into the country through French harbours. Although most of the fish was caught in Malta and Italy, there were also unauthorised catches in Spanish waters. In this case, the illegally fished tuna was transported below deck, Europol said.

Because of the nature of the operation, the tuna was largely stored in unsanitary conditions. Several poisoning cases were found after the tuna had already been consumed. This, Europol noted, resulted from degradation of proteins from the un-hygienic conditions in which the tuna was stored.

Sometimes, the fish was hidden underwater, awaiting transportation. The supply chain was interrupted several times, which made the tuna go bad, raising the risk of food poisoning for eventual customers, Europol said.

On the day of the arrests, two mobile offices were deployed to Italy and Spain for on-the-spot support. In Italy, experts specialising in food health and safety carried out 23 inspections and identified 45 suspects in addition to the 79 who were arrested.

The tuna farming business flourished to a multi-million-euro industry over the years. Malta built up one of the Mediterranean’s largest bluefin ranching capacity in the past 20 years. In 2007 alone, the industry had already processed 11,360 tons of the fish.

Fish farm federation says report makes no reference to fish farms

The Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP), which was not privy to any of the investigations, stressed that Europol made no reference to fish fattened in any of the Bluefin tuna farms in Malta but to fish allegedly caught in Italian and Maltese waters.

The focus appeared to be on illegal fishing of Bluefin tuna and not to fish harvested from any of the Maltese aquaculture producers, it said - adding that it would not tolerate any illegalities.

"The FMAP is taking these allegations very seriously and as a matter of fact discussed the statement by Europol with representatives of the EU commission at a meeting in Brussels held earlier on this week. We will continue to cooperate with all relevant authorities as necessary as we have always done," it said. 

Government says it is helping ongoing investigation

In a statement, the government said it was working with European authorities in the ongoing investigation. 

"Any form of illegality in the fishing and tuna farming industries undermines its sustainability and cannot be tolerated," it said. 

The Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the government added, would take immediate action against any abusers and would also be cooperating with tuna farm operators to promote sustainable practices. 

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