Big fish, small fish - Anne Zammit
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Big fish, small fish - Anne Zammit

First off, let’s be clear. By no means should you dare to imagine that tuna ranching in the Mediterranean has anything to do with money laundering or South American offshore accounts.

Hannibal Fisheries Ltd just happens to be so named in the same way that the rich waters of Hannibal Bank (off Panama) are famed for big game fish like tuna.

In 2008 Greenpeace tracked down two illegally registered purse-seine fishing vessels docking in Malta unhindered. The attorney general started legal action against the locally based operators. Hannibal Fishing Ltd showed up among 14 other fishy companies listed among the global elite, in the 2017 Paradise Papers leak.

Talking of banks, a day before the suspension of fisheries director Andreina Fenech Farrugia last month on allegations of soliciting payments from a tuna baron, the news broke of fishy transactions by Satabank in Paceville. There were links to operations at Malta’s own Hurd’s Bank shallows off Valletta, where fishing boats had been smuggling Libyan fuel to tankers.

The infamous Debonos (unrelated), Darren and Gordon, dodgy cohorts who eventually reneged on each other in 2017, were jailed in Sicily after their operations under the screen of a fish farm business turned out to involve small tankers.

A journalist monitoring connections between the tankers and a Swiss company’s bunkering facility in Marsa in 2015 had been put off writing about it after being threatened.

Daphne Caruana Galizia had a run-in with a vague relative of Darren Debono in 2016. The blogger-journalist, killed by car bomb the following year, retaliated at the time that, rather than bristling with talk of reprisals, the Valletta grandmother had better take care that Darren wasn’t blown up.

Just as casually, after the suspension of the fisheries director last month and pending investigations, the Malta Federation of Aquaculture Producers issued this striking statement: “We are surprised Fenech Farrugia wasn’t killed.”

Putting her foot down “with some operators” was considered a risky business according to an industry veteran. This kind of talk has normalised the criminal world’s credo that if someone makes trouble – get rid of them.

The country along with its fish farm business is undergoing a form of State capture

Andreina’s plea that she was “singled out” as the sacrificial lamb is peppered with her protestations of “bad translations” from Spanish phone intercepts. It hints at someone who desperately wants to open her mouth and point a finger but, as a small fish, is left writhing on a legal hook.

It was in early 2010, shortly after a special department had been set up to rein in Malta’s out-of-control fishery, that I interviewed Andreina for this newspaper. Populations of migrating bluefin tuna had been decimated for decades despite warnings from scientists that quotas were too high.  

From her scenic harbour-side office you could lower a fish hook from the window to catch your dinner. I thought at the time how easily the constant comings and goings in the port might distract anyone away from their work, and wrote:

“The Fisheries Control Department, set up last year by the Resources Ministry, hopes to conduct a long-overdue overhaul of fisheries legislation. Department director Andreina Fenech Farrugia explains: “Since we found ourselves in the middle of the bluefin tuna activity, which took priority, we had to postpone some other issues.”

This was a reference to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. At the time, despite an extra 10 fisheries protection officers joining the department, professional capability was “stretched to the limit” according to her chief officer.

On the same day that the disgraced fisheries director was removed from her post last month, an ERA consultation meeting in Mellieħa was testing the waters of public opinion on a zone for aquaculture in the North.

In the same week, a Planning Authority hearing for doubling the cage size of a well-known fish farm operator was postponed.

Sadly, the country along with its booming fish farm business, is undergoing a form of State capture.

It’s been six whole years since an inquiry by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists discovered “off-the-books” trading in bluefin tuna that was looting the Mediterranean. It now appears that a web of fish farms has continued laundering tuna in Maltese pens ever since Japanese demand for sashimi went through the ceiling.

Last summer, when tuna slime in our bathing waters was the froth on everyone’s cappuccino, researcher Alicia Said homed in on how Maltese and EU policies had been “a blessing to the expansion of industrial fishing at the expense of artisanal fishing”.

The Malta fleet, a mere handful of hook-and-line tuna fishing boats, had their quotas snapped up by purse seiners with giant nets for dragging tuna to fattening pens off the Maltese coastline.

According to the inquiry, tuna ranchers traded figures to appear compliant on paper and faked releases if it was noticed that they were under-declaring harvests. Divers reported “opaque underwater labyrinths of nets and cages where counting fish is almost impossible.”

Authorities, fishermen and tuna ranchers across the region were engaged in “widespread fraud and negligence” with rampant rule-breaking according to ICIJ journalists. A traceability system for tuna catches brought in by the European Commission as part of the control effort was found by the ICIJ to be “riddled with incomplete and contradictory information”.

Blind siding this charge, an official of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna declared being “unaware” of any incomplete or inconsistent data. Limits were imposed, not on individual fish, but on biomass (weight). But across the years, it became widely known among inspectors that under-reporting of catches was rampant.

In May last year, a month before Fenech Farrugia allegedly demanded payment from Fuentes Group owner Jose Fuentes Garcia, she was awarded the Ordre du Mérite Maritime by the French ambassador to Malta. Depending on the outcome of investigations, Madame L’Ambassatrice may be obliged to ask for the medal back.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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