It is now more than 30 days since our ship was seized and our 30 friends and colleagues were arrested. They now face a charge of piracy — an absurd charge that carries a maximum 15 year jail sentence.  In the meantime pirate fishing is a real threat, recklessly plundering our oceans.

It seems like when you're a big fish in the tuna industry you can break whatever rules you don't like and - if your illegal activities are ever discovered - flash some cash to make all the fuss go away.

It shouldn't be that way. Huge profits are at stake in the tuna fishery, but so is the future of a fish that is a vital source of food, livelihoods and income to small island states. If fines for pirate fishing are low and there's little or no other consequence to stealing fish, unscrupulous tuna bosses will simply make it part of their business model to do so.

 Photo: The Albacora Uno is owned by a company which promotes itself as the largest tuna company in Europe. It also owns another of the world’s largest tuna purse seiners, the Albatun Tres, shown in this picture. © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

One fishy business which appears to have opted for that modus operandi is Spanish tuna company Albacora S.A. “the largest tuna company in Europe” as they advertise on their website. They fish tuna all over the world and their fleet includes several of the biggest tuna vessels in the world.

In 2010 one of their vessels, Albacora Uno, was charged with illegally deploying 67 fish aggregating devices inside in US Pacific waters over a two-year period from 2007 to 2009. The company settled this case by paying a USD 5 million fine, the highest civil penalty ever imposed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA.

But despite the settlement, Albacora Uno was never blacklisted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Why? Because compensation had already been paid. Also, most commissions operate on a consensus basis, and when push comes to shove flag states often cover up for their wayward fleets and veto their blacklisting.

That's why set up our own Greenpeace pirate fishing blacklist, combining all the fishery commission blacklists with our own list of vessels that have engaged in illegal, unregulated or unreported (IUU) fishing but evaded “official” blacklisting. Based on the case above, Albacora Uno was added to our blacklist.

Of course, we believe it's possible for companies to mend their ways, so a company may apply to have its vessel delisted after two years if it can prove the problems are fixed and there is no further evidence of IUU fishing by any of its fleet. Albacora Uno was removed from our blacklist earlier in 2013.

Bad guys gone good?

Unfortunately, no. Just a few months later we discovered that in August 2011, the same vessel Albacora Uno allegedly discarded a ton of skipjack tuna, which would violate the rules of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. This incident was included in NOAA’s 2013 report to the US Congress stating that “Spain notes everything to date seems to indicate the alleged violation did in fact take place”. However, the case was later dropped with no reason given.

That same year in West African waters another five “Albacora” tuna vessels Albacora Quince, Nueve, Diez, Seis and Caribe – three of which belong to a subsidiary of Albacora S.A. – were caught fishing for tuna without valid licenses in the Liberian EEZ. But the fishing association OPAGAC arranged for the matter to be settled out of court (and out of the headlines) for a payment of USD 250,000. Again, these vessels evaded blacklisting by the regional fisheries management organization ICCAT.

But it doesn’t end there. Cross the Pacific to the Marshall Islands, whose entire EEZ has been declared a shark sanctuary. The Marshall Islands Journal report that in July 2012 this same Spanish vessel was discovered inside the shark sanctuary with 18 shark carcasses on board, and the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority fined the Spanish vessel USD 55,000 for violating their sanctuary.

Most recently the Albacora Uno and some of its crew have been fined one million USD by the Nauru District Court for six counts of illegal fishing within Nauru's EEZ. The master and the fishing master pleaded guilty of this accusation. But yet again, a financial settlement has meant the vessel escaped blacklisting procedures at the Pacific Tuna Commission this year.

So how can a tuna company afford to operate on this basis, and continue paying these massive fines? First of all, tuna is a very valuable fish, and with current high prices some vessels are allegedly making up to USD 10 million annual profit. Then factor in subsidies, like the 3.7 million euro the company received for building the Albacora Uno. They also pocketed another 10 million euro in subsidies for the Albatun Dos and Albatun Tres.

Greenpeace is demanding that Albacora S.A. and OPAGAC come clean on all the IUU incidents and settlements they've been involved in since receiving EU subsidies for vessel building.

All regional fisheries management organizations must publicly report IUU violations, regardless of whether fines have been paid, to allow proper transparency and enable responsible traders to avoid getting drawn into the fishy business of companies operating illegally.

Canned tuna brands and retailers must commit not to source tuna from companies whose vessels appear on the Greenpeace or regional fishing commission blacklists.

The over-sized fishing vessels of the EU have no place stealing fish from some of the tiniest island nations of the Pacific. With record high catches of Pacific tuna being reported, and general consensus that there are too many vessels chasing fewer and fewer fish, it is common sense that this vessel – with its illegal fishing track record now spanning seven years – should be among the first to go.

Summary of IUU fishing incidents by the Albacora fleet – how much more is out there?

2007 illegal fishing in US Pacific EEZ by Albacora Uno

2008 illegal fishing in US Pacific EEZ by Albacora Uno

2009 illegal fishing in US Pacific EEZ by Albacora Uno

2010 USD 5 million settlement for the above IUU fishing

2011 alleged skipjack dumping by Albacora Uno in the East Pacific 2011 five “Albacora” vessels, including three owned by an Albacora S.A. subsidiary, fishing in Liberia without valid licenses

2012 USD 250,000 payment for the IUU fishing in Liberia

2012 shark fishing by Albacora Uno in the Marshall Islands Shark Sanctuary, USD 55,000 fine

2013 Spain identified by the US under the Moratorium Protection Act for IUU fishing

2013 illegal fishing in Nauru EEZ by Albacora Uno results in a USD 1 million fine

Correction: The five vessels that paid compensation for fishing in Liberian waters were referred to as Albacora S.A. owned vessels in the initial blog posting. In fact, according to Lloyd's List Intelligence the Albacora Nueve, Diez and Caribe are owned by Albacora S.A. subsidiary, Overseas Tuna Company (O.T.C.) N.V and are flagged to Curaçao (Nueve) and Panama (Diez and Caribe). Albacora Cuatro is owned by Compania Europea de Tunidos S.L. another member of OPAGAC, and flagged to Spain while Albacora 6 (Seis) is owned by Icube Tuna Fisheries N.V. and flagged to Curaçao.