Report: ICCAT bluefin rules leave loopholes for IUU

A new report, recently published on ResearchGate, has found that the current catch documentation method for Atlantic bluefin tuna used by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas leaves large loopholes that can be exploited by fishers catching more than what is allowed, allowing them to have illicit catch enter E.U. markets.

The report, funded by the WWF, is focused exclusively on the eastern bluefin tuna stock. It comes in the wake of the 2018 bluefin tuna trade scandal, which found an illicit trade network selling large amounts of illegally harvested bluefin tuna in Europe. A complex, multi-organization investigation that included the Spanish Guardia Civil and EUROPOL – dubbed Operation Tarantelo – discovered that the illicit trade of illegal bluefin tuna catch had been occurring for years. The trade involved most of the countries in the northern Mediterranean, with illegal bluefin tuna coming from Maltese farms and Italian fishing boats. One of the largest Spanish tuna farming operators, Ricardo Fuentes y Hijos, was found to be the mastermind behind the trade on the Spanish side, and used a number of companies to issue false ICCAT bluefin catch documentation. The volume of the resulting illicit trade was estimated to be around 2,500 metric tons a year, which would have represented 18.6 percent of the total quota for the E.U. in 2017.

While the exact details of how the catch documentation was falsified are unknown – the information is not yet in the public domain – it is possible the fraud was perpetrated by sending the “same” consignments into Spain twice by simply duplicating the forms and sending the tuna by two different routes, according to Gilles Hosch, an independent researcher focused on the development of systems to combat IUU and the author of the new report.

Under ICCAT bluefin catch documentation rules, trade-specific data (bill of lading, airway bills) is not recorded in certificates, leaving an information gap that could allow fraud. That gap, Hosch said, is still there, and there is little being done to close it.

“The system has changed very little since its inception more than 10 years ago,” Hosch told SeafoodSource.

The ICCAT is holding its annual general assembly from 18 to 25 November, and according to Hosch, the issues that contributed to the bluefin trade scandal are unlikely to be discussed much.

“The E.U. will propose the creation of yet another working group on bluefin tuna control and traceability, when two working groups tasked with bluefin tuna control measures and the development of the eBCD are already in place,” he said.

The report discovered, through reviewing the rules of ICCAT’s electronic bluefin catch document scheme, that there are serious gaps in information that could easily allow for illicit tuna to enter markets.

One significant absence in the documentation, according to the report, is the lack of any record of the first buyer when tuna is landed – or moved from a farm – domestically. The only time this information is required is when tuna is prepared for exportation.

“This entails that the point of insertion into the land-based part of the supply chain, and the owner of the fish remains unknown up to the moment in time when a consignment is being prepared for exportation,” the report states. “With this being so, a copy of any BCD [bluefin catch document] can be wielded as prima facie evidence that products held in cold storage by any company has been sourced from a legally certified fishing trip. To challenge this, an inspector would have to launch an investigation into sales notes and transaction records, rules for which are not standardized, are based on national law, change from country to country, and whose implementation is uneven across ICCAT CPCs [Contracting party, cooperating non-contracting party or fishing entity].”

This gap facilitates the laundering of illicitly caught tuna, according to Hosch. Bluefin tuna farms – which typically are used to “fatten” wild-caught bluefin – could use the loophole to sell a quantity of bluefin tuna domestically, and then sell the “same” bluefin tuna internationally with proper catch documentation under ICCAT rules.  

The question that naturally stems from this loophole is where a farm could get a supply of illicitly caught tuna to launder. According to the report, current rules that are intended to keep careful track of the tuna in a farm’s possession are also inadequate, and leave large gaps that could allow companies to move more tuna than they’re claiming to move right under the noses of observers.

While the transfer of tuna in the eastern bluefin tuna industry is tightly regulated – it is occasionally labeled “the most heavily regulated fishery in the world,” according to the report – key gaps in the rules could be exploited to move illicit tuna.

Under ICCAT rules, stereoscopic cameras are used to record the transfer of caught bluefin tuna into a farm. The rules require the video to display the authorization number of the transfer/caging operation at the start and finish, and show the opening and closing of the nets/door to show whether the receiving and donor cages contain bluefin tuna.

According to the report, this allows the video to establish the emptiness of the receiver cage during transfers, and the emptiness of the farm cage during caging. However, the rules don’t provide for what must be filmed at the end of the transfer.

“If the empty state of the donor net is not asserted at the end of the transfer through video footage, there is nothing preventing the crew transferring fish from one cage to the other from stopping recording half-way through the transfer, and submitting that footage to estimate the totality of tuna transferred,” the report states.

While the video is stopped, more tuna could continue to be transferred into the farm, even with observers on board.

“Given the depths at which tuna may gather during such transfers, and other complicating factors, such malpractice can not easily be overseen by an observer observing from the deck of the purse seiner, or the farm,” the report states. “Unreported fish may end up in the farm through regular channels, exploiting the gap in the rules.”

Compounding the issues with the video footage, the report states, is the restricted access to the footage. The provisions require that the footage be transmitted to the flag state of the vessel, the regional observer observing the caging, the farm representative, the national authorities, and the ICCAT Secretariat.

However, the provisions provide no mechanisms to give access to the video to any third-party interested, willing, or mandated to run a reevaluation.

“Since the assessment of the footage is a laborious undertaking taking many hours, observers are often not part of the process,” the report states. “This leaves the process to be handled by parties most directly prone to conflicts of interest, and independent oversight is not normally exercised.”

The issues with inadequate video rules are only compounded, according to the report, by the nature of the bluefin tuna trade and the ineffectiveness of the current observation methods used to monitor the fishery.

“One of the major weaknesses of the observer program as currently provided for is that the observer is carrying out his/her monitoring work standing on the deck of the fishing vessel or the farm,” the report states. “Unless the observer is in the water, the observation of such instances of flouting the rules is extremely difficult – and mostly impossible to detect. A billion-euro industry, of which much of the critical transactions are taking place below the surface of the sea, must give itself the means of appropriate observation.”

The inability to make adequate observations is a theme that’s not limited to the transfer of tuna, it also applies to the rules themselves, according to the report. Everything that is related to the implementation of the current electronic bluefin catch documentation that ICCAT requires is behind password protected portions of the ICCAT website, and not available to the public – or someone trying to put together a report. “Currently, not even inspectors participating in International Joint Inspection Missions have access to the eBCD system and its data repository.”

In addition, while Hosch sought meetings with national fisheries authorities, national police forces, private sector stakeholders, the ICCAT Secretariat, EUROPOL, the European Fisheries Control Agency, and the Directorate General for the Fisheries Affairs of the E.U. Commission, he wasn’t able to meet directly with a single agency.

Part of that, the report concedes, could be due to the ongoing investigation into the scandal that prompted the report.

“Owing to the fact that Operation Tarantelo, the police investigation into the uncovered illegal bluefin tuna trade, was still ongoing and that the judiciary proceedings had started in Spain and in Malta, there was a general reticence by parties to meet and discuss events, and the ICCAT trade measures under review,” the report states.

Still, guidance documents hosted on the eBCD [electronic bluefin tuna catch document] interface only became available, Hosch wrote, after a “sympathetic private sector user” downloaded them and let him have access to user manuals.

“All materials relating to eBCD – including manuals and guidelines – are hosted on password protected portions of the ICCAT website,” Hosch said. “Nothing is accessible. Everything is a secret.”

The report includes 14 separate recommendations for ICCAT, ranging from broad changes to those that focus on specific issues. Among those recommendations are four that “address individual and important aspects of the conservation and management measure’s defining the eBCD system and its operations, and the design challenges that the system may face overall, or challenges relating to specific elements of the system.”

The report also calls for greater streamlining of data submission routines, that minimum sanctioning standards be defined, that tuna tagging requirements be re-examined,among other reforms.

The current electronic documentation system, according to the report, is flawed due to it being based on the older paper-based system.

“In order to tap into the deep potential of an electronic catch documentation system, there is a pressing need to develop a modern and enabling conservation and management measure for the ICCAT catch documentation system,” the reportsaid.

As the domestic E.U. market increases, he added, the need for a system that takes domestic trade into account is essential.

“The all-important part is that the electronic BCD design is unfit for purpose. It’s based on a paper system," Hosch said. “With the ascent of intra-E.U. bluefin tuna trade, and a strong E.U. market, the system becomes useless." 

Photo courtesy of Alexius Sutandio/Shutterstock


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