Fisheries racket: tuna rancher is named

Spanish investigators stumbled upon evidence that a Maltese tuna rancher could also have been involved in an EU-wide fisheries racket during investigations into a rogue Spanish operator last year.

According to documents submitted in a Spanish court, Malta Fish Farming Ltd (MFF) was also identified in wire-tapped phone calls as a supplier of illegal tuna to the Spanish market alongside Spanish-owned company Mare Blu.

MFF Ltd, owned by former Elbros owner Saviour Ellul, was mentioned in the conversations, summaries of which have been seen by this newspaper, as having supplied illegal tuna catches to a Spanish distributor.  

Sources in the Spanish investigation told the Times of Malta that MFF and Mare Blu were the only two companies that were mentioned in this case. However, they were informed that most operators in the sector were involved in some form of black market dealings. 

“There are several hundred pages that have been submitted in court in Spain but these are the only two Malta-based operators involved in this case,” the sources said. 

According to the court documents, MFF would allegedly supply irregular tuna to Spain via Italy and France, using trailer trucks, ferries and planes and a network of suppliers.  

Contacted on Tuesday, Mr Ellul directed Times of Malta to send any questions on the matter via e-mail. In a brief reply, he later denied any involvement in the smuggling of fish from Malta to Spain.   

The Spanish court documents identify Mr Ellul’s son Giovanni Ellul as the supplier of irregular tuna. 

The Spanish probe has also pointed a finger at former Fisheries Director General Andreina Fenech Farrugia, saying she had allegedly solicited bribes from Mare Blu tuna farm in return for higher fish quotas. 

While she was suspended as soon as the allegations were leaked to the Spanish press, she has denied any wrongdoing insisting any mention of payment in the intercepted phone calls was in relation to the standard fee an operator would have to pay for increased quotas.  

Industry sources, meanwhile, have described the sector as rife with abuse, filled with operators who did not take kindly to enforcement.  

‘I’m surprised they didn’t kill Andreina’ – industry veteran

“I’m surprised they didn’t kill Andreina [Fenech Farrugia] after she clamped down on some operators in recent years. This whole sector needs to be sorted out but there has never been any will to do so,” a veteran in the industry said.

Spanish investigation sources said the irregular tuna catches, which originated from Italy and Malta, would often start to decay en route but still get sold to consumers. The main problem with supplying such tuna to the market is the dramatic increase in harmful histamines in the meat. 

Histamine can be toxic from 50 milligrams per kilo of product, although EU sanitary regulations allow an absolute maximum of 200 milligrams. 

The Spanish sources, however, said consumers who ended up hospitalised in Seville ate tuna containing 2,584 milligrams per kilo. Histamines in these proportions can cause heart failure and lung disease, according to an expert report incorporated in the Spanish court case.

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