Illegal bluefin tuna smuggling ring busted in Europe

Police in Spain arrested 79 people involved in illegally smuggling bluefin tuna from Italy and Malta into Spain – an operation that had been taking in an estimated EUR 12.5 million annually (EUR 14.4 million).

The 16 October operation, led by Europol, seized 80,000 kilos of bluefin tuna of illicit origin, in addition to EUR 500,000 (USD 575,000) in cash and jewelry, seven high-end vehicles collectively valued at more than EUR 600,000 (USD 690,000), and documents demonstrating the tuna was caught illegally and smuggled into Spain.

The operation revealed a large network of fishing companies and distributors were involved in the ring, including one of Europe’s biggest seafood farming companies, the Spanish Ricardo Fuentes and Sons Group, according to Europol. Investigators found the fish had been caught illegally in Italian and Maltese waters, imported to Spain via French harbors, and was then traded illegally in Spain. The bluefin from Malta was imported illegally using documents from legal fishing and authorized farms, while the fish caught in Italian waters arrived in Spain without documents or inspections. Additionally, some of the fish seized in the raid had been caught in Spanish waters and transported in false bottoms under the deck of a fishing vessel, Europol said in a press release. Several residents of Spain became sick after eating the products brought into the country illegally, likely as a result of the unhygienic conditions the fish was stored in after being caught and transported.

Samantha Burgess, Head of Marine Policy for WWF Europe, said the bust showed “the extent of illegal fishing and trade that continues to take place in European waters, despite European legislative measures that seek to curb these activities.”

Those measures include the EU IUU Regulation and the EU Control Regulation. The IUU Regulation, which went in force in 2010, is aimed at deterring illegal fishing in European and international waters and preventing illegal seafood from entering the E.U. market. The regulation requires all fisheries imports into the E.U. to be certified as legal though a catch certification scheme. The E.U. Control Regulation requires that rules and sanctions are uniformly applied across the E.U., including the control of seafood traceability practices and the control of imported fishery products, according to WWF.

Burgess called for the European Parliament and Council to revisit the E.U.’s regulations to ensure compliance with the rules through improved monitoring and control methods, including digitization of records.

“This level of black fish and black money occurring on the European market in 2018 contravenes the leadership role that the EU is taking in the global fight against illegal fishing. Only through digitization of records to trace where fish were caught can we remove the legal loopholes and ensure each member state takes their responsibilities seriously to prevent more illegal fish entering the E.U. market,” Burgess said. “Without transparency on where fish were caught and how they were transported within Europe, we won’t achieve a legal seafood market and sustainable fisheries governance in Europe.”

Burgess added that the timing of the raid and arrests – less than a month before the meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), from 12 to 19 November in Croatia – gave regulators better information to help them craft rules to manage the east Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna fisheries “to ensure legality of this lucrative fishery.”

Photo courtesy of Europol


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