Report: Corruption led to bluefin’s downfall


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
November 7, 2010

Corruption, greed and criminal misconduct on the part of fishermen, traders and fisheries managers has led to the overfishing of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna over the past decade, an international group of investigative journalists said on Monday.

Several reporters with the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) discussed their series of articles and a short documentary titled “Looting the Seas,” which details willful disregard for the rules intended to preserve the highly migratory species for future generations. The series was released on Monday.

“This is a very complex supply chain with layers of responsibility and complicity throughout,” said Marina Walker Guevara, one of the ICIJ journalists who spoke with fellow reporters on conference call. “At no step along the supply chain were people doing the right thing.”

The journalists’ seven-month investigation focused on fishermen in 10 countries along the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, tuna “ranchers” and also traders, both legal and a black market valued at USD 4 billion (EUR 2.9 billion). Bluefin tuna is highly prized in Japan; it has been estimated that up to four-fifths of the tuna harvested from these waters end up in Japan.

The investigation started around the time when the species was proposed for protection under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The organization’s member nations voted down the proposal this spring.

While there is plenty of blame to go around, the journalists said the management of the species by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has proven to be ineffective. ICCAT’s monitoring system, a trail of paperwork to track the species and prevent fraud, did not work as expected.

“[ICCAT was] relying on industry to accurately report catches. About half of all entries lack significant information that would allow a regulator to track the trade,” said Guevara.

At the peak of destructive fishing and trading practices in the region — between 1998 and 2007 — a black market for bluefin tuna included more than one out of every three fish caught, conservatively valued at USD 400 million (EUR 287.7 million) per year. The project, which involved reporters Croatia, France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Tunisia, found an array of illegal practices: misreporting catch size, hiring banned spotter planes, catching undersized fish and trading fishing quotas.

“Everyone cheated,” Roger Del Ponte, a French fishing captain, told ICIJ. “There were rules, but we didn’t follow them.”

Bluefin tuna regulators gather in Paris on 17 November to determine fishing quotas for 2011.

The ICIJ’s full series on bluefin tuna is available at The ICIJ is a project of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

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