Europol have coordinated an international operation with authorities from France, Italy, Malta, Spain and Portugal to arrest 79 individuals for their involvement in Europe’s bluefin tuna market. Operation Tarantelo was launched when the Spanish Guardia Civil noted irregularities involving bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean Sea.
Further investigations uncovered that quantities of the fish were being traded illegally in Spain. Bluefin tuna shipments were being smuggled into Spain through the French harbors after being caught in Italian and Maltese waters.
Documents from legal fishing and authorized farms, were used to illegally import the fish into Spain where insufficient inspections failed to detect the bluefin. Unauthorized catches were also found in Spanish waters with smugglers transporting the illegal fish in false bottoms under the deck of a vessel.
Several food poisoning cases have been attributed to the unsanitary conditions in which the fish are stored when smuggled into Spain.
It is estimated that bluefin tuna smugglers would earn around five Euros of profit per kilogram of fish. In total, estimated profits for 2018 amounted to over 12 million Euros as it is believed the illegal market has been smuggling 2.5 million kilograms a year.
The Guardia Civil made 79 arrests after carrying out 25 searches. Police seized more than 80,000 kilograms of illegal bluefin tuna, alongside half a million Euros in cash and seven luxury vehicles.
The tuna business is often linked to other crimes such as food fraud or document fraud. The main risks for consumer health were due to the unsanitary conditions in which the fish was transported and stored. Sometimes the fish was hidden underwater after it was fished, awaiting transportation. The supply chain was interrupted several times, which made the tuna go off and the risk of food poising higher for eventual customers.
Several cases of food poisoning were detected after eating the tuna, due to the degradation of proteins from the unhygienic conditions in which the tuna was stored.
Europol’s support was crucial for the success of Operation Tarantelo, not only by providing analysis support but also providing permanent expertise and advice from environmental crime experts and coordinating meetings for information exchange. On the action day, two mobile offices were deployed to Italy and Spain and Universal Forensic Extraction Devices (UFEDs) for on-the-spot support.