Between 1998 and 2007, more than one in three bluefin was caught illegally, creating an off-the-books trade conservatively valued at $4 billion.
Fishermen blatantly violated official quotas and engaged in an array of illegal practices, including misreporting catch size, hiring banned spotter planes, catching undersized fish, trading fishing quotas, and plundering tuna from North African waters where EU inspectors are refused entry.
National fisheries officials have colluded with the bluefin tuna industry to doctor catch numbers and avoid international criticism.
Sea ranches, where bluefin are fattened to increase their value, became the epicenter for “laundering” tuna in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
The paper-based reporting system implemented by regulators in 2008 to bring transparency to the trade is full of holes, rendering the data almost useless.
A widespread, off-the-books trade in bluefin tuna has existed in Japan since at least the mid-1980s.
While there are signs that EU officials have started to crack down, illegalities remain a serious problem. In North Africa and Turkey, even less accountable fleets are ramping up operations.
A wall of secrecy protects the bluefin industry. Officials in countries from Spain to Croatia failed to produce records on fishing and farming infringements. Even the European Commission denied access to fishery infraction records, citing protection of commercial interests and even “military matters."