79 Arrests In Crack Down On Million Dollar Tuna Smuggling Ring

EUROPOL, in a coordinated international operation with authorities from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Malta, have arrested 79 individuals for their alleged involvement in Europe’s EUR 12.5 million (USD 14.5 million) illegal trade of bluefin tuna.

Operation Tarantelo- aptly named after the Spanish word for a triangular prime cut of tuna belly- was set in action when Spain’s Guardia Civil became aware of irregularities related to bluefin tuna harvesting from the Mediterranean Sea.

Further investigations revealed the prized fish was being traded illegally in Spain, entering the country through French harbors after being fished out of Italian and Maltese waters.

The international sting operation yields crucial intelligence, just a few weeks ahead of the meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which will take place from November 12 – 19 in Croatia.

During this next meeting of the ICCAT, member states and the EU will deliberate on new policies in managing the lucrative fisheries of the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna stock.

Findings from the investigation included cash and luxury items

In total, the Guardia Civil in Spain carried out 25 searches and uncovered over 80,000 kilograms of illicit bluefin tuna, which were seized in addition to EUR 500,000 (USD 578,100) in cash and seven luxury vehicles.

Italy’s police arm specializing in food health and safety, Carabinieri NAS, carried out 23 inspections and identified 45 suspects, while seizing 541 kilograms of tuna.

Although most of the fish were found to have been caught in Italy and Malta, unauthorized catches were traced back to Spanish waters, where the unlicensed catches were said to have been transported in false bottoms below the decks of fishing vessels.

The illegal bluefin market is double the legal market

Estimations suggest the covert network traffics over 2.5 million kilograms each year- at least double the size of the legal bluefin market, which is approximated at 1.25 million kilograms per annum.

It has been reported that criminals involved earn at least EUR 5 in profit per kilogram of trafficked bluefin tuna.

Among the large network of fishing companies and distributors investigated was one of Europe’s largest seafood farming companies, Ricardo Fuentes and Sons Group, based in Spain.

Earlier this month, Atuna reported on the major Spanish investigation looking into an alleged international illegal distribution network of bluefin tuna, which appeared to involve Ricardo Fuentes and Sons based on an import of at least 2,500 tons from Malta. The company has fiercely denied the allegations.

Authorities are concerned about human health crimes

Reports have cited a primary concern for consumer health due to the unsanitary conditions in which the fish were transported and stored. At certain times, the fish were said to have been kept hidden underwater, instead of frozen on ice, while awaiting transportation at various checkpoints.

Where the supply chain was disrupted several times, the tuna were found to have been contaminated, elevating the potential risk of food poisoning for eventual consumers.