in

Malta exposed: A hub for the ‘laundering’ of prized Bluefin tuna worth millions

Andreina Fenech Farrugia, the Director General of the Fisheries and Agriculture Department, is at the centre of a corruption scandal on tuna fisheries involving one of the biggest players in the industry, where evidence shows she abused her position for personal profit, jeopardising years of scientific research and advice on the preservation of a species on the brink of extinction.

El Confidencial published evidence of conversations between Fenech Farrugia and Jose Fuentes Garcia, a Spanish tuna kingpin, that were intercepted by the Central Operation Environmental Unit (UCOMA) in Spain with the help of Europol. The alleged international tuna ‘laundering’ ring was worth up to €25 million.

Fenech Farrugia was reinstated as Director General soon after the Labour Party was elected in 2013. She replaced Joe Caruana who was summarily ousted despite a successful track record. Fenech Farrugia had already served in the post under a Nationalist government, attending international meetings with local industry kingpins as the ‘national delegation’. She was close to the industry lobby even in Malta, defending their cause at every opportunity.

Fenech Farrugia was caught telling Fuentes: “I’m in Bulgaria just for you, you have to pay me, because there’s a meeting and I’m with the director general of Brussels” on 20 June last year. She was in Sofia, Bulgaria, at the time taking part in a series of meetings relating to the fishing sector.

Bulgaria held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2018.

The European Fisheries Commissioner is Maltese Labour stalwart Karmenu Vella, father-in-law of Labour MEP Miriam Dalli.

Intercepted conversations showed that Fenech Farrugia was aiding the company breach European and international regulations on the catch of a highly prized species. Tuna is caught from the wild and fattened in cages, then sold to the Japanese market for tens of thousands of euro.

Overfishing led to the almost complete collapse of the species, leading to the toughening of international regulations to control catch, at huge cost to European taxpayers. At this controversial time, Fenech Farrugia was heading the Malta fisheries department.

New revelations note that this was not the first time that Fenech Farrugia collaborated with the industry to defy regulations. Several media reports on the illegalities in the industry ongoing in Malta over the years were repeatedly drowned out by voices defending the industry, where Fenech Farrugia was a regular contributor.

The Fuentes Group consists of 40 companies in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Croatia, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta with tuna fishing and farming at the core of its operations. Its representative in Malta is Mare Blu, involving John Sebastian and Massimo Cappitta.

Authorities suspect that the illegal trade of Bluefin tuna involving Malta could be worth up to €25 million via the import of undeclared tuna and the bypassing of restrictions. They illegally used fishing vessels with French, Libyan, Tunisian, and Algerian flags to fill their cages in Malta. They also resorted to false invoices to fool authorities monitoring the enforcement of regulations.

Auditors of the Malta-based companies noted inexplicable inconsistencies in the data provided, stating that “we have not received all the information and explanations we requested to perform the audit”.

In 2016 the turnover of Mare Blue was €54 million with a profit of €4.7 million. In 2017, its income was €56.6 million, and yet it registered losses of  €7.5 million.

When Fenech Farrugia had occupied the position, the EU Maritime Affairs and Fisheries director-general at the time, Lowri Evans, had said the Maltese fisheries sector was “in a very bad place”.

The Shift News had revealed that another major player in the industry – Azzopardi Fisheries – had not filed any audited accounts in 18 years, making any scrutiny of the company’s operations impossible. There was no reaction from the Malta Financial Services Authority that is responsible for ensuring companies registered in Malta abide by company regulations.

Joe Caruana then assumed the position in 2011, completely transforming the sector but a newly-elected Labour government reinstated her, leading to rumours that the tuna industry had financially supported the Labour Party and her reinstatement was a condition. The rumours could not be confirmed due to a lack of transparency on Party financing.

The government took the rare action of dismissing Fenech Farrugia even before news had hit the headlines in Malta.

Free Speech: Be part of the solution

police Daphne Caruana Galizia

‘A deep structural injustice’ – CoE notes lack of investigation on Daphne’s death