Here’s a statistic you probably did not know. Malta has the largest tuna fattening capacity in the world, and its five tuna farms receive around a quarter of all Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna caught in the world every year. This makes Malta one of the most important players in the tuna industry. But that same importance also makes it, given its failures to implement controls that led the EU to escalate legal action, one of the weakest players in the drive to manage the tuna fishery sustainably.  

Bluefin tuna was driven to near-extinction at the turn of the century. It then took 15 years of aggressive, international curbs on fishing for the population to recover sufficiently for the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) to start shifting gear. Last November’s annual meeting of ICCAT heard that the effort could start shifting from “recovery” to “management”, something that entails putting in place tighter controls on every segment of the tuna farming or fattening industry, from catch to slaughter to export.

ICCAT then adopted tighter controls designed to close loopholes of earlier measures rolled out in 2017 and 2018. But Malta has yet to implement those earlier measures, and this is part of the reason – others being “delayed investigations” and failure to take action against non-compliance by operators – the EU has escalated legal proceedings against Malta.

A cage in a tuna fattening farm

This website also revealed last week that Maltese judicial and police investigations into tuna smuggling discovered in late 2018 by Europol now appear to have stalled.

And sources close to ICCAT have told this website of continued chatter about wrongdoing in tuna farms, in Malta as well as some other places, and the observer mechanism. Observers are tasked with monitoring the industry for adherence to rules.

Although ICCAT has not been able to independently verify such chatter, or allegations, these have resonated within ICCAT in the wake of the 2018 Europol-led investigation that outed a tuna smuggling racket amounting to an estimated 2.5 million kilograms of tuna that passed through Malta and Italy every year.

The monitoring and observer mechanism

Tuna is highly valued in sushi and sashimi, and Malta has positioned itself as one of the main sources of tuna for the sushi and sashimi market in the Far East. Maltese tuna farms get most of their live tuna from French and Italian fishermen, feed it oily fish for about four months to increase the fat-to-meat ratio favoured in sushi and sashimi, and then export it to Japan mainly.

Schematic sketch of how tuna is caught in purse-seine nets

Tuna in Japan is known as ‘black gold’, with each tuna fetching thousands of euros in Japanese fish markets. Malta’s tuna industry generates around €150 million annually.

Over the years ICCAT has developed a tripartite system of monitoring and supervision. This includes two types of observers: regional (attached to ICCAT) and national (attached to each country involved in tuna fishery or fattening industry). Regional observers monitor the fishing of the tuna in purse-seine nets, and then film every transfer of the fishes – from purse-seine net to transport cage, from transport cage to farm cage – while national observers are present on the towing vessel that transfers fish from fishing grounds to farms as well as during transfer from transport cage to farm cage.

The observers also log details of every catch as it moves through the system, and then pass on the footage and details to ICCAT and national authorities.

On top of that, every country ought to have a Competent Authority to monitor transfers of tuna into farms, and then afterwards seal the cages and only open them before slaughter.

In the latest measures adopted last November, transfers or trading of tuna from farm to farm has also been restricted and regulated.

The emails and ensuing investigation

Last year, a series of detailed emails obtained by the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), a hub of collaborative investigative journalism, alleged widespread corruption in the observer system in Italy and Malta.

Tuna being transported in transport cage

The journalistic investigation – in which this website has also been involved – has found no evidence of the alleged wrongdoing.

Yet one of the findings was that the organization or deployment of the observers has become concentratedly privatized, outsourced to just three companies. And two of those companies – the French Cofrepeche (which is reportedly 30 percent owned by French State) and the Italian Oceanis – have collaborated at least in training of observers since 2011.

In Malta, Oceanis has organized and deployed Maltese national observers during every tuna-fishing season since 2018 under contract by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. Cofrepeche has collaborated with Oceanis in Malta at least on training.   

The tender for this year’s season, which closed at the end of January, is for the “provision and management of national observers, and training courses for captains of towing vessels.” 

The obvious question here is whether commercial companies ought to be involved in the organization and deployment of the observers in the first place. This takes added significance when considering that two of those three companies are longtime collaborators, at least in training observers.

School of wild tuna

An Italian named Francesco Lombardo has had the following jobs in the past 10 years according to his LinkedIn page: regional observer with Oceanis, national observer with Cofrepeche (when he was deployed on Malta’s only tuna purse-seine fishing boat), hatchery manager at Malta Fish Farming Ltd (which owns one of Malta’s tuna farms as well as farms of other fishes), Scientific Director at Oceanis, and, for the past few years, Chief Scientific Officer at the Maltese Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture.   

In 2019, the department put up a Facebook post announcing the training programme for national observers, and gave Lombardo’s government email as the contact point for “further information.”

In that tuna fishing season, Lombardo’s previous employer Oceanis was contracted to organize and deploy Malta’s national observers.

There is no suggestion or evidence of wrongdoing by Lombardo. It can even be argued that his different roles over the years give him wide spectrum insight into the industry. But at the same time, it raises questions over the potential for familiarity.

Facebook post: click to enlarge

This depends on the extent of Lombardo’s involvement in the observer mechanism in his departmental role, which is not known. Neither is it known whether he has been involved in any capacity after 2019. Questions sent to the spokesperson of the Fisheries and Agriculture Ministry on whether Lombardo has been involved in the training, selection, or coordination of Maltese national observers – or assessment of tenders for companies bidding for the provision of observers – remained unanswered. Neither did the spokesperson answer questions on who selects the observers from among the trainees, or after training.

ICCAT’s loophole in limiting familiarity

ICCAT itself seeks to limit familiarity by laying rules that hold that regional observers cannot be deployed on fishing boats and farms of fishermen or operators of the same nationality as that particular or given observer.  

Yet the rules seem to permit derogations if insufficient regional observers who speak the language of fishers or tuna farms may be found. It is unclear how significant this may prove to be in Malta’s case, given its small size – whether it could lead to regional observers of Maltese nationality ending up monitoring catches and transfers that end up in Maltese farms.  

Investigations by IRPI and this website are ongoing.  

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