Tuna - Stopping Illegal Import and Export

With these laws in place, monitoring the marine environment is brought down to observing what is taking place - there is no need to check papers or licenses as there are none to be issued. Yet, this dose not mean that other illegal activities do not take place albeit with in the letter of law.

The import of fish needs to be monitored very closely, as non EU-countries will from time to time try to get past quotas. This is usually done by importing a catch to a European country as frozen fish in containers: If they are already in freezer containers they are in transit. The trick is to get them from the fishing boat to the container within the law! This is done by calling in at a port where stores can be taken on board and cargo - e. g. fish - can be unloaded.

The procedure is as follows: The fishing boat will transfer its catch to freezer containers, the vessel in question will be within his quota at this point and the vessel's papers will show this. The containers will then be transferred to a transporting barge and that vessel will leave port to a different country, all quite legal, this far. If this takes place in a port like Gibraltar with the Spanish port of Algeciras just four miles away across the bay it could be deemed convenient for the company who own the fishing vessel.

The fish that have been unloaded to freezer containers are 'in storage'. As soon as the container goes on board the transport barge they are 'in transit', when they arrive they are 'frozen fish in a container' that are no longer part of a quota or catch but a cargo with a destination from a seller to a buyer. The vessel then leaves and continues to fish - however, this time they will discharge their fish onto the mother ship at sea who will monitor the quota for each and every vessel.

The problem of transferring at sea to the mother ship is one thing, unloading in a port is far from the eyes of everyone who matters on that vessel. As for the port where transfer takes place - well, they only need to see the paperwork is in order. It is not known who of them reports to the inter-governmental fishery organisation ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), which monitors catch numbers and quotas.

Each time a vessel came into port the Helping Hand Trust would go down and monitor the unloading and transfer of tuna! It was the monitoring of these shipments and the photographs that we took that enabled us to highlight the problems of this procedure.

Our photographs showed firstly that tuna was being transferred to containers for shipment to Spain, secondly that there were shark and swordfish mixed with the tuna and thirdly that each tuna was colour coded with tags in their tails to determine quality.

Our breakthrough came when one of our biologists noted during the unloading of one shipment that among the tuna the fishermen had also caught a whale shark - a protected species. Armed with photographs we had a meeting with the minister responsible for these issues. While the transfer of tuna, shark and swordfish being in what can only be called a 'grey area', the whale shark was definitively another league. The situation coupled with articles that appeared in the local press brought the activities to a halt and the visits by these vessels stopped.