Tista’ taqra dan l-artiklu bil-Malti hawn
The government failed to protect fishermen from major businesses who have swallowed up the industry, a former member of the committee of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd told The Shift.
Martin Caruana, whose family’s history is intertwined with fishing and spent most of his life working as a part-time fisherman, is known among his peers as a lone voice in the wilderness of an industry which has been repeatedly hit by major corruption scandals.
One well-known scandal was the major web of corruption linked with Andreina Fenech Farrugia, the former director-general of the government’s fisheries department who was accused of soliciting bribes from Jose’ Fuentes, one of the owners of one of the biggest tuna ranchers in the Mediterranean.
Caruana spoke to The Shift after this news portal revealed the conclusions of an investigation into the operations of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd.
“The Cooperatives Board is conscious of Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd Ltd’s financial problems but instead chose to avoid doing its duty and did nothing to stop the abuse,” Caruana said, calling out the board for failing to hold the cooperative’s committee accountable.
“The Board has had the cooperative’s accounts in hand for years, accounts which year after year, were waiting for someone to look at them. Accounts which clearly indicated that there was some serious wrongdoing,” Caruana added.
Earlier this month, the Cooperatives Board, the official government entity which regulates every cooperative registered in Malta, concluded an investigation into Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd’s accounts – a cooperative set up by fishermen to facilitate the sale of their catches.
The Cooperatives Board’s inquiry into the fishermen’s cooperative’s accounts and conduct confirmed The Shift’s reporting, which showed that the cooperative was over €100,000 in debt and practically insolvent.
Since 2007, the fishermen’s cooperative has been run by an executive committee largely controlled by four individuals – Joseph Demicoli (president), Paul Piscopo (secretary), Michael Carabott (vice-president) and Ernest Galea (treasurer).
Piscopo’s vessel was previously caught ferrying contraband diesel, while Carabott was caught red-handed smuggling ammunition which was allegedly destined for Libya. Galea should not even be a member of the committee or even engage in fishing activity since the law forbids fish vendors from being on the committee.
Demicoli, the president, has made it a point to boast of his very close relations with the top echelons of the Labour Party.
However, rather than ordering the cooperative’s liquidation due to the committee’s track record and the dire financial status that the accounts attested to, or at least ensuring the cooperative goes into administration, the Cooperatives Board said that it has reached out to members of the fishermen’s cooperative to see if anyone else wants to take charge of the committee.
The Cooperatives Board’s spokesperson did not answer The Shift’s questions about how a new committee would be able to pull the cooperative out of insolvency. While the coop’s leaders are expected to resign, there has been no talk of accountability.
Caruana, who had left the cooperative’s leadership in 1994 after 17 years at the helm, believes that the cooperative was run aground by people who “enjoyed absolute impunity”. He had also briefly served on the government’s fisheries board in 2016, in which Caruana regularly clashed with Andreina Fenech Farrugia until he eventually resigned in March of last year, describing the environment as a conflict-driven one.
Reiterating that the Cooperatives Board has had evidence of wrongdoing from the cooperative’s committee since at least 2016 but chose to do nothing, Caruana said the only thing that changed was that the fishermen’s cooperative stopped publishing audited accounts.
“What the Board also did was raise the tariffs for acquiring a copy of the annual accounts, making it quite expensive for the public,” Caruana said. Anyone interested in seeing a cooperative’s accounts would have to pay the Cooperatives Board €0.23c per page, according to their spokesperson.
“Not only did they fail to do their duty, but they abused their power to stop people who wanted to do their duty for them,” he added, further claiming that there were occasions in which the Board increased tariffs to “exorbitant” levels whenever he specifically asked for accounts.
When asked whether he thinks that the cooperative’s members will actually respond to the Cooperatives Board’s call to take on the task of turning around a financially defunct cooperative, Caruana said he did not believe this would happen.
In the cooperative’s annual accounts, auditors expressed an extremely negative opinion on the state of affairs, even outlining instances in which money that went into the cooperative could not be traced or located.
“If the auditor couldn’t find this money, then it is certainly not in the cooperative’s accounts,” Caruana said.
“The cooperative’s members are fishermen, and fishing is what they do. All they wanted was to have professional management so things could proceed as they should,” he added, arguing that the cooperative instead ended up being “hijacked” by individuals who sought to squeeze the industry and use it to cover up illicit activity.
Caruana believes that the Cooperatives Board’s failure to take adequate action against the committee amounts to a cover-up of the exploitation of a cooperative that once served as the voice of the industry’s workers and catered for much of their needs.
‘The territory of dirty politics’
Caruana attributed the problems to “the territory of dirty politics”.
Having been in the industry for more than four decades, Caruana has seen a transition from a market that was largely supplied by traditional fishermen who own one or two vessels to one that is dominated by major players who own entire fleets.
“I can’t say, with 100% certainty, why the government did what they did. However, I can observe that the fishing industry has been stolen from traditional fishermen,” Caruana said.
Today’s major players, which include huge businesses like Azzopardi Fisheries, Elbros and other companies of that scale, have pushed out traditional fishermen, with legislation passed over the years working in favour of major players who are also donors to the main political parties.
“One thing they did was to impose quotas on fishermen: if you don’t catch a specific amount of fish every year, they take away your licence. They just began sending out letters to whoever did not manage to reach their quota and take away their professional licence,” he added.
Fishermen who did not make the quota would essentially lose their licence to fish professionally or on a part-time basis, instead only being allowed to go on recreational fishing trips while not being allowed to sell their catch, practically cutting off their lifeline.
While the number of traditional fishermen gradually declined due to the pressures imposed by government quotas, the licences taken away from them were instead given to “the fat cats of the industry”, thereby increasing their quotas.
“What is clear is that based on the actions of the Cooperatives Board, nobody is working towards the strengthening of the industry or the cooperative itself,” Caruana argued.
“This is what has happened in Marsaxlokk – fishermen have disappeared over the years because of how events have aggressively developed against their interests,” he added.