The Malta Independent 22 August 2019, Thursday

Fish farm federation denied request to become parte civile in Spanish tuna racket case

Kevin Schembri Orland Monday, 12 August 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 9 days ago

Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP) CEO Charlon Gouder highlighted the need to clamp down on illegal fishing and indicated that attempted theft from tuna fish farms is a worrying situation. He also spoke about the industry’s future plans and the Spanish illegal fishing case that saw the Maltese Fisheries Director mentioned.

The Federation of Malta Aquaculture Producers (FMAP) had its request to become parte civile in a Spanish investigation on tuna farming racket denied, according to the foundation’s CEO, Charlon Gouder.

Several arrests were made in the Spanish investigation, in which Malta featured heavily.

The then Maltese Fisheries Director, Andreina Fenech Farrugia was suspended following allegations that she demanded money from a major Spanish tuna operator José Fuentes García for personal use. Spanish newspaper El Confidential had published leaked phone intercepts by the Spanish authorities allegedly showing how Fenech Farrugia asked Spanish bluefin tuna kingpin José Fuentes García for payment. Fenech Farrugia has denied any wrongdoing and asking for or taking money for herself.

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FMAP CEO Charlon Gouder, in an interview with The Malta Independent, explained how FMAP had filed a request in the Spanish court to become a parte civile in the ongoing proceedings in Spain, however said that this request was refused on the basis that they were not Spanish.

During the interview, Gouder also spoke about illegal fishing and thefts from tuna farms, as well as industry plans to turn the wasted parts of the fish into a commercially viable resource. He said that the industry are looking into the possibility of using certain parts of fish which are usually wasted into material to be used in pet food, which would require investment in a new land-based plant.

He was also asked about the fish slime situation, and plans to improve upon the self-regulatory measures the industry introduced last year.

The Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP) had come together and signed a self-regulating agreement, which included a number of measures to prevent, among other things, sea slime. One operator however had not signed on, has this situation changed?

FMAP represents more than 75% of the operators who farm Bluefin tuna. These are Maltese operators and are AJD Tuna, Fish&Fish, MFF, MML and Ta’ Mattew.

Mare Blue is not part of this federation. There were discussions over the past year and I had the opportunity to speak with both their Maltese and foreign representatives – particularly from Spain.

At this stage, taking note of what is happening internationally, the position we are taking as FMAP is that we are following what is happening and we will take decisions in the future when the picture is more clear.

I say this as in Spain there is an ongoing investigation and subsequently some people were taken before the courts. We fully believe that everyone is presumed innocent until found guilty. The procedures in Spain are still in the early stages, and indications are that this process will take a long time. At this stage we are trying to follow the situation as closely as possible and will be able to then move ahead when it comes to the rest of the operators.

 

You’re referring to the same Spanish investigation which implicated the Suspended Fisheries Director Andreina Fenech Farrugia (photo above)...

We do not have any information as to whether or not Dr Fenech Farrugia is being investigated or is part of the whole Operation Tarantelo. We are not the investigators and are simply seeing the information as it reaches us. The information that led the government to request her suspension related to leaks of documents from the legal process which were revealed by a Spanish journalist. We have no further information other than what was revealed that day.

Those documents form part of Operation Tarantelo that led to a number of people being brought before the courts.

 

Was FMAP contacted over the Spanish investigation, to be spoken to?

No we were not contacted or approached. We had filed a request to be participants in the case as parte civile in order to see how and in what way Malta was being mentioned. Beyond belief, we were told that this request was not accepted, because we are not Spanish. We appealed this case, and there are other entities who wanted to be part of the process who were also refused because they were not Spanish.

We filed a request to be participants in this process as parte civile to have the opportunity to make pertinent and related questions. Everyone is mentioning Malta lock-stock and barrel when the investigation is in Spain, and issues found in Spain, but Malta gets blamed. This worries me.

Together with the government, the Opposition and all the stakeholders we must protect this industry, as it is important for the economy. We also do not want to depend solely on what is being reported and have the ability to see the documents, but while we respect the decision of the courts, we don’t agree with it and appealed.

 

There was an issue recently regarding theft from Maltese fish farms. This had emerged after some fish heads were found floating near St Thomas Bay. Are there any updates, is there an ongoing investigation?

We noted this year and even through discussions with the Cleansing Department – with whom we are pushing for even greater collaboration – that this year there were a greater number of incidents than normal, where tuna carcasses, tuna heads, tuna in an advanced stage of decomposition or tuna fish skeletons were found.

Everything indicates that these are either tuna stolen from fish farms and a number of police reports were filed where the operators found nets cut, material which showed that someone tried to steal tuna from inside the pens, tuna fish injured. Everything indicates attempts to steal tuna, or illegally caught tuna from the sea which was not processed as meant to be.

Wild tuna harvests and harvests from pens are handled completely differently. While harvests from pens need to be done in the presence of a regional observer, needs authorisation etc. fish caught out at sea by fishermen needs to be cleaned and recorded, gilled and gutted. The carcases found indicate that it is anything but gilled and gutted.

There are studies that show the importance that fish need to be cleaned well, even in order to preserve the quality of the fish. Unfortunately for traditional fishermen who spent their lives improving their reputation by providing quality products are finding unknown persons who, for illicit motives, put onto the market inferior quality products for inferior prices.

 

Is illegal fishing a major issue in Malta, or is it just a situation where a few incidents were recorded?

I can mainly speak about tuna. This year, there was a higher than normal occurrence in terms of finding of carcasses, which indicates that this is a result of illegal fishing. So yes this year, due to the higher amount of carcasses found, I think there were a larger number of attempted illegal fishing instances than normal.

From the other end we are trying to ensure that we can reach a stage where illegal fishing around the farms be reduced. FMAP finds cooperation from the two fishing cooperatives. It is not a situation of fishing vs aquaculture, but fishing and aquaculture. Throughout our operations, we use the fishermen when we can during the period of least activity for them, due to the added value they bring

Even if we find one tuna in that state it is damaging, as to do that imagine the damage to the infrastructure that would have had to have been done. While the tuna looks like a monstrous fish, it is very weak. My worry is not that you just stole a tuna, but in the process of such a theft, what damage did you cause on the rest of the tuna. When you tried to shoot one, imagine what other damage you could have caused.

 

There is one issue with the fish farm industry which has caused a great nuisance for many years, sea slime. All fish farm operators had been found to be in breach of their permit conditions, were fined, and presumably fixed the situation. Why weren’t they following these permit conditions from the beginning?

You need to see what kind of breaches they were. There were breaches that might have been administrative, or signs which were not visible enough, so breaches that were not of environmental significance...

 

But there were some which were of an environmental significance...

But all those were remedied last year, and this year we will again introduce a self-regulatory agreement with new measures built on the experience of last year.

Last year we had entered into such an agreement with the exception of Mare Blu, where the tuna operators committed to having boons with every cage, patrolling boats, an independent person monitoring the environmental performance etc. This year we will have more measures, such as having direct access to information as to what kind of material is being gathered in the farms and the amount, such as the amount of oil from the farms themselves. That in itself is a strong test to indicate the effectivity of the farm and their performance. We are insisting on having that kind of information.

The ERA confirmed that when it comes to farming, the zone, particularly the bottom, is clean and is strong in terms of biodiversity and cleanliness.

We are seeing how we can push for, not just the bottom to be clean, but also the surface of the water. We are also proposing more collaboration with government entities. We depend on the sea and it is in our interest that it be clean.

We also believe that the cleanliness of the sea should not solely be the mission of the aquaculture sector. There are a number of sectors which use the sea. I think that the commitment towards a clean sea, that the aquaculture gives, is unfortunately no other industry is giving. We are not the only people who make use of the sea, and so here comes my appeal to the different industries and the government. As our industry pushed as much as it can to shape up and give our contribution, I believe the other industries should do their part in keeping the sea clean.

 

Can you guarantee, given the measures taken, that we have seen an end of the fish slime?

I’m not going to say no. we cannot guarantee it, but I will guarantee one thing, that we are making all the efforts.

We want to reach perfection, but whether or not we will be perfect is hard. But that we are substantially improving and want to build upon the good of last year yes, I can give that guarantee.

We must not forget that we can only push our agreements on our members – we do not have access to the others. Our operators all have the additional means for fish feed to be preserved and carried on the boats as they are meant to be. They all have their land bays. This is important as we have a controlled environment whereby we can take fish feed to the cages in very good condition.

 

Any plans for the aquaculture industry?

We as a federation are here to represent the interests of our members, but our main aim is to represent the whole industry, whether they are members or not.

Looking at how the aquaculture industry grew over the years, we managed to reach where we are as we managed to tap markets and industries which, until that time, were not tapped.

Today, unfortunately, if the aquaculture industry is not again given new blood, it will not advance further and stop where it is.

So what are we doing as a federation? We are looking at how we can extend the aquaculture industry in areas that, up until now, we did not manage to tap.

We had the opportunity to head to Iceland, which is a leader in fishing and aquaculture. They have an avant-garde setup, which includes clusters where they gather all the minds in that industry to provide added value.

If there was one lesson we took back it is that we need to see how, from the products we produce, we do not lose anything. Iceland managed to become more profitable while reducing their dependency on the sea. So if you have a fish and only use 75% of it presently, you need to see how to use the other 25% and not throw it away.

One of the methods we saw was that for certain types of fish, they managed to commercialise the use of the heads and spines instead of throwing them away, at a profit. They created a resource from waste. We need to look at similar things in our  aquaculture industry, and particularly for Tuna.

We are working so that the tuna offal, instead of being thrown away, we can see how to commercialise it. We are now at an advanced stage as we managed to conduct studies in under a year, which show that the product currently described as waste can be turned into a resource through an investment in a new plant where, the operators through the formation of a company between them which came about by a push from the Federation, can find a solution for that waste.

Do you have any indication as to the different use of this waste?

Yes. Research has been conducted and we are in the advanced stages of concluding the business plan. We are seeing that the waste from the tuna, which includes the head, spine and certain other parts be produced into material for pet food.

 

 

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