By  Laura Aragó and Daniela Q. Lépiz

The highly profitable catches of bigeye tuna (BET), a billion dollar business especially prized for the Asian markets and some European sushi markets are dragging the species stock to dangerous low levels. Despite being declared overfished since 2015, the catches are far from going down whilst vessel activity targeting the species appears to be on the increase.

Frenzied fishing activity caused that from 1990 to 2007 the reserves of this type of tuna have decreased by 40% in the Atlantic according to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

At least 15 of the 16 vessels registered under Curaçao, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Belize flag,  have Spanish companies as a beneficial owners.

To control this situation, 5 years ago, the ICCAT agreed to impose annual quotas on countries that had a developed fishing industry. And among them, the Spanish industry, which due to its capacity is among the biggest harvesters of this subspecies of tuna.

The ten vessels that make up the Spanish tuna fleet in the Gulf of Guinea have captured a total of 73,000 tonnes in the last ten years, according to ICCAT data. And that's not counting the 15 vessels that do not sail with the Spanish flag but whose real beneficial owner are companies of the spanish fleet.  

After a three month investigation into the beneficial ownership of some world's leading tuna companies operating in West Africa and targeting Bigeye tuna, CENOZO and La Vanguardia discovered that at least 15 of the 16 vessels registered under Curaçao, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Belize flag,  have Spanish companies as a beneficial owner.

In practice, a legal loophole is allowing some multinationals to bypass internationally agreed fishing restrictions by “reflagging” its operations. Some of the companies use the fishing quotas of developing countries to target this already overfished stock with industrial fishing operations

This strategy,  still perfectly legal, is facilitated by complex beneficial ownership setups.

In fact, according to widely available public data services which were consulted it appears that least 5 vessels with a Curacao flag, 5 with a El Salvador flag, 2 with a Guatemala flag, 2 with a  Panama flag and 1 under Belize flag have have the Spanish fishing companies as beneficial owners, specifically: Albacora, Calvo, Pevasa, Jealsa Rianxeira SA and Nicra-7., Which, in fact, are already sailing in the Atlantic in search of bigeye.

Meanwhile,  the stock of bigeye tuna is barely half the size needed to support a "maximum sustainable yield", -the largest catch that can be taken without compromising long-term stability of the species-.  

The strategy

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is, among other species,  responsible for the sustainable management of bigeye tuna. To this end, since 2011 it has established catch quotas for the major fleets targeting the BET: European Union, Japan, China, Ghana, Taiwan, among others.

The European Union as a whole is allowed to catch 16 989 tons of Big Eye Tuna. A proven hard-to-meet limit for one of the biggest fleets on earth: the Spanish alone reported catching in the Atlantic 11 544t of bigeye tuna  (67 % of the total EU catch) last year.

Nevertheless, the quota only applies to those countries that already have a competent fishing industry in the international market. In 2014 developing countries signed an agreement with some west african nations to be given fishing rights in the Gulf of Guinea with one major advantage: they do not have an official catch limit, although their harvest should not exceed exceed 3 100 tonnes a year, per country, or “they might face a review”.

Under these international rules Curacao,  Belize , El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama seemed to have built large industrial vessels and made it all the way to the Gulf of Guinea to get their share in the market. However, in a number of cases, it appears that the beneficial owners of several of those vessels are Spanish.

"As the EU tuna fishing rights are limited according to the commitments acquired in ICCAT (...) the other countries that have tuna fishing rights recognized in the Atlantic are a valid alternative for the exploitation of the resource," explained Iñigo Uribe, manager of Nicra-7.

Julio Morón, managing director of OPAGAC, one of the main spanish organizations of frozen tuna producers, admits that “the companies integrated in OPAGAC manage tuna vessels that operate under spanish flags and under third countries”. In fact Morón recognizes that the OPAGAC fleet -composed by 5 important spanish tuna companies including Albacora and Nicra-7-  maintains 33 vessels in third countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Ecuador among others. In return, Morón claims that these companies have made investments in these countries and highlights that this practice “contribute directly to the development of these countries.”

Although under no obligation to employ local crews, Morón states that approximately 400 africans are employed thanks to the spanish fleet -either under an spanish flag or third country flag- and that they have created more than 2.500 jobs in 9 african- and latin american countries.

 Iñigo Uribe, manager of Nicra-7, a company that operates two vessels in Curaçao -Albacora Seis and Guria- explained in a telephone interview that quotas from third countries are an alternative because the European Union quota is already covered by active vessels.

"As the EU tuna fishing rights are limited according to the commitments acquired in ICCAT and currently this capacity is already covered with active vessels, the other countries that have tuna fishing rights recognized in the Atlantic are a valid alternative for the exploitation of the resource," he explained.

Although Spain appears to be reducing its distant water fleet capacity, it is increasing the number of fleets it reflags its operations too.  In fact, although the Spanish industry is the most important within the EU, the recent ICCAT annual report states that Spain has “ 10 authorised vessels in the ICCAT Convention Area,” but does not mention any of  the large scale Spanish beneficial owners related to vessels from Curacao, Panama, Belize and El Salvador.

Although this is not a legal requirement in ICCAT, there is an under representation of the Spanish owned fleets operating in West Africa which are reflagged to South American countries.

In this regard, the spokesman of the Directorate General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of the European Union, Enrico Brivio, said that although the Commission has "some general knowledge" that some Spanish companies include ships from third countries in their operation, but does not possess detailed information on the owners of individual vessels.

"Curacao, Guatemala, Belize or El Salvador do not fish under EU fishing quotas in the Atlantic and, therefore, vessels that use the flags of these countries can not contribute to" exceed "the quota according to the rules of the ICCAT. The EU participates actively in the Atlantic to guarantee sustainable fishing, regardless of the final owners of third-country vessels. "

Technically no legal rules were broken in the cases identified in this investigation. However it brings to light the debate which is already echoed in the EU Parliament  about the need to have more transparency around beneficial ownership of companies – especially when targeting a species which has been declared as overfished since 2015.

The lack of  transparency in business ownership in fisheries has been repeatedly been  highlighted as an area of concern, including by the FAO, UNODC and OECD.

Within a week you can change the flag, the ownership, the nationality of the capital – it's all remaining totally hidden – Comoros and Belize are notorious for in and out flagging of EU, particularly Spanish, vessels” said Dr. Cornelia E Nauen, President at Mundus maris - Sciences and Arts for Sustainability referred to the ease with which vessels targeting highly lucrative species can change their flags.

A game of names and flags

In the world of fisheries, the company that operates a specific vessel is not necessarily the same company which is the beneficial owner.  Most of these companies do not own the vessels but operates them.

El Salvador, for example,  is not a coastal country yr in the Atlantic ocean, as it is located in the Pacific, yet they are allowed to fish resources which are already beyond the bounds of sustainability in the Gulf of Guinea. . It is the case of Montealegre, Montelape, Monterocio, Montefrisa Nueve y Montecelo, 5 salvadoran boats owned by Calvo company through the salvadorian branch of this group, Calvo Pesca El Salvador.  According to available public data sets, Calvo appears to be both ship manager and registered owner for all of this vessels.

The company attributes this to “reasons exclusively operational giving the presence of the group in the country since 2003 and where they have a food processing plant”.  

The case of Nicra-7 is a little bit different because it’s manager Iñigo Uribe admits in an interview that they operate two vessels -Albacora Seis and Guria- in order to have more fishing capacity. They  operate these two vessels but the property relies on Icube Tuna Fisheries, a curacao company whose proxy according to Curaçao Chamber of Commerce is the same Iñigo Uribe. In the same interview he stated that the 5 vessels that Curaçao has in the Gulf of Guinea fleet are all operated by spanish companies: two by Nicra-7 and the the others three by Albacora.

Although Albacora refused to make any declaration for this article, according to the databases consulted for this investigation the case of Albacora it is similar to the previous one. Trough companies located in Curaçao and Panama they operate at least a fleet of 4 vessels.

"The only practices that do encourage overfishing are those practiced by illegal fishing, mainly from Asian countries that exercise their activity completely outside any type of control and bypassing all kinds of regulations" detailed Morón, president of OPAGAC.

Rianxeira Group admits to operate two vessels in Guatemala - Sant Yago Uno and Sant Yago Tres-. Asked by Cenozo and La Vanguardia, this company has attributed having its fleet in third countries to “operational reasons” as they have an “investment project in fishing development and fish processing”.

Pevasa, on its side, has also refused to answer the questions asked. However, the data collected and analyzed for this research reveal that this group operates in a very similar way to Nicra-7 and Jealsa Rianxeira. Through a company called Sea Breeze, they operate a ship registered in Belize.

Depleting the Bigeye tuna

All the companies and organizations linked to the tuna sector consulted for this report - which have responded - attribute this situation to the illegal fishing of the Asian fleets. "The only practices that do encourage overfishing are those practiced by illegal fishing, mainly from Asian countries that exercise their activity completely outside any type of control and bypassing all kinds of regulations" detailed Morón, president of OPAGAC.

However, due to the current fishing practices - legal or illegal - current harvests, are 60 percent above levels that would give bigeye at least a fighting chance of recovering its numbers, the latest report from ICCAT says. 

The key to the survival of bigeye is now in the hands of ICCAT, which at its annual meeting in Croatia this week is considering to reduce catches of bigeye to the purse seine by 20%. For their part, the Spanish tuna industry claims that this measure can represent losses of up to 80 million euros and regret that the focus is not on preventing illegal fishing.

This is an english adaptation of the original version published in La Vanguardia.

Main image credit: Mario Chaparro, La Vanguardia.