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In March 2010, a team of reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists set out to document the plundering of one of the ocean’s most awe-inspiring creatures — the giant Eastern Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. Favored for its soft red flesh, bluefin tuna is prized by sushi lovers around the world. For seven months, ICIJ deployed 12 journalists to investigate the bluefin trade, a trail that led from major fishing fleets and tuna ranches in the Mediterranean and North Africa, through ministry offices, to some of the world’s largest buyers in Japan. ICIJ’s team uncovered a supply chain that at every step was riddled with fraud, negligence, and criminal misconduct.

The ICIJ investigation, Looting the Seas, relied on more than 200 interviews with fishermen, ranchers, divers, officials, scientists, and traders, as well as court documents, regulatory reports, and corporate records in ten countries, including France, Spain, Japan, and Tunisia. In addition, ICIJ gained access to an internal database used by regulators to track the trade and ran an extensive analysis of the data.

Among our findings:

  • Behind the plummeting stocks of Eastern Atlantic bluefin stock is a massive black market. At its peak, 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. France, for example, allegedly filed fraudulent catch data with the European Commission for years until it came clean in 2007.
  • Sea ranches, where bluefin are fattened to increase their value, became the epicenter for “laundering” tuna in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Many ranches grossly underreported the fish they had in their pens and faked releases when forced by authorities to let go of illegally-caught bluefin.
  • The paper-based reporting system implemented by regulators in 2008 to bring transparency to the trade — dubbed the Bluefin Tuna Catch Documentation scheme — is full of holes, rendering the data almost useless. For example, during 2008 and 2009 more than 75 percent of all purse seiner vessels catches — which comprise nearly half the overall catch — are missing crucial information that regulators need to follow the fish from vessel to market.
  • A widespread, off-the-books trade in bluefin tuna has existed in Japan since at least the mid-1980s. ICIJ obtained a confidential 2006 investigative report commissioned by Australia and Japan that exposed widespread overfishing and laundering into Japan of southern bluefin tuna, a sister species of the Atlantic bluefin tuna.
  • 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.”

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