Bluefin tuna demise due to black market and fraud

Posted: 7 November 2010

The rapid demise of Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, the source of prized sushi around the world, is due to a $4 billion black market and a decade of rampant fraud, according to a new report.

As regulators gather in Paris on November 17 to decide the fate of the threatened bluefin, a new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) finds that behind plummeting stocks of the fish is a supply chain riddled with criminal misconduct and negligence, from fishing fleets to sea ranches to distributors.

Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna. © M San Felix

Each year, thousands of tons of fish have been illegally caught and traded, according to Looting the Seas, ICIJ’s seven-month team investigation which reached into ten countries. At its peak — between 1998 and 2007 — this black market included more than one out of every three bluefin caught, conservatively valued at $400 million per year. The project involved reporters in 10 countries, including Croatia, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Tunisia.

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

The Eastern Atlantic bluefin, whose spawning stock has plummeted nearly 75 percent since 1974, is the favoured source of red tuna sushi and sashimi. Japan makes up three-quarters of the world market, but the fish is also served in restaurants from Paris to New York.

Among the investigation’s key findings:

  • Led by the French, Spanish, and Italians, Mediterranean fishermen violated official quotas at will and engaged in an array of illegal practices: misreporting catch size, hiring banned spotter planes, catching undersized fish, and trading fishing quotas.
  • Fisheries officials in France colluded with the bluefin industry to doctor catch numbers and avoid international criticism.
  • The Bluefin Tuna Catch Documentation Scheme — created by regulators to bring transparency to the trade — is so full of holes that its data are almost useless.
  • A widespread, off-the-books trade in bluefin tuna has existed in Japan since at least the mid-1980s, according to a secret report.
  • As EU officials start to crack down, even less accountable fleets are ramping up operations in North Africa and Turkey.
  • EU and national governments protect the bluefin industry with a wall of secrecy, denying public access to records on fishing and ranching violations.

Looting the Seas is being released this week in major media outlets worldwide. A companion documentary, produced by ICIJ and London-based tve, is broadcast on BBC World News on November 6-7, 2010. You can view a clip of it here.