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3,500 tuna held in cages illegally for a year finally released

Legal proceedings remain as the EU has accused Malta of failing to implement no less than three EU regulations as well as two ICCAT recommendations.

The 3,500 tuna held in two massive cages affixed to boats that had been drifting at sea for a year have finally been released, The Shift can confirm.

The fish were released following legal action in the criminal court by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The average tuna captured for Malta’s farms weighs more than a hundred kilos and worth thousands of euro.

The department had come under huge pressure from the EU Commission, which initiated legal proceedings against Malta last May over slack controls of the tuna penning industry in breach of EU regulations.

The international environmental NGO WWF had also been lobbying heavily for the release of the tuna.

Replying to questions by The Shift, a spokesperson for the fisheries department said it had been “requesting” the release of the fish since January. She added that upon the initiation of criminal proceedings the “operators asked the department to release the fish”.

The department found no objection, the spokesperson added. “The case is still ongoing.”

The name of the tuna farm set to receive the fish could not be established.

Although the trapped tuna was one of the reasons that led to last May’s legal proceedings against Malta by the EU, the reasons listed in the EU’s “letter of formal notice” are broader.

The EU has accused Malta of failing to implement no less than three EU regulations as well as two recommendations by the International Commission for Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT).

This includes failure to “implement a management plan for Bluefin tuna in that geographic area starting in 2019”, as well as moves towards achieving “maximum sustainable yield” of the tuna fishery by 2022.

The latter is enshrined in Bluefin Tuna Regulation EU 2016/1627, which is part of a recovery plan devised by ICCAT that was designed to run from 2007 to 2022.

The recovery plan was prompted by the collapse of the tuna fishery and fears that tuna would become extinct.

The tuna population has been steadily recovering since early 2000. Sources have told The Shift that despite low confidence in the reliability of the latest stock assessment – conducted in the past few months by ICCAT and set to be formally adopted at the end of this month – the indications are that the recovery trend is continuing.

Controls are also being progressively tightened to counter pirate fishing. The newest measures, drafted last March by an ICCAT working group, focused on additional control and traceability measures at tuna fattening farms.

Yet these measures will not be formally adopted this year because the annual plenary meeting of ICCAT, normally held in autumn, has been called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Malta has the largest tuna farming capacity in the world, an industry that has grown into one of Malta’s leading export industries, worth more than €120 million annually.

The potential for the farms to launder pirate fishing became dramatically evident in late 2018 when a Europol investigation named Operation Tarantelo found that an estimated 2.5 million kilos of illegally caught tuna – double the amount of the legal catch – was entering the European market every year.

Malta was one of the main sources of illegally caught tuna. The farms were smuggling the tuna overland to Spain under cover of duplicate, fraudulent paperwork.

An investigation by The Shift last year also found that thousands of tuna were being caught illegally in the environs of Is-Sikka tan-Nofs, some 6km offshore from Marsascala, where some of Malta’s tuna farms are situated.

After last May’s letter of formal notice, which expires next week, the EU Commission will have to decide whether to escalate legal action against Malta after assessing any response by Malta to move towards compliance with EU and ICCAT regulations.

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