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OVERVIEW: The Black Market in Bluefin - The Center for Public Integrity


Along the Mediterranean coast of France, in the city of Montpellier, prosecutors are quietly putting on trial an ancient French tradition — the fishing and trading of the majestic Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, a sushi delicacy sold in restaurants from New York to Tokyo. The still-secret proceedings accuse some of France’s most prominent fishing masters of illegally catching several hundred tons of the prized bluefin, a fish so severely plundered in the Mediterranean that this year it was proposed for listing as an endangered species alongside panda bears.

Bluefin tuna is one of the sea’s most valuable species, a highly migratory fish that can weigh more than 500 kilograms and live 40 years. One large fish can fetch more than $100,000 in Japan, which consumes around 80 percent of the global bluefin market. The widely hunted bluefin has also become a bellwether, the latest threatened species in a feeding frenzy that has seen the disappearance of as much as 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish.

Behind the demise of the bluefin is a kind of Wild West of fishing, in which fishermen, traders, and regulators have for years widely ignored the rules. “Everyone cheated,” said Roger Del Ponte, one of the six French fishing captains facing criminal charges. “There were rules, but we didn’t follow them. It’s like driving down the road. If I know there are no police, I’m going to speed … They didn’t care, then all of a sudden, boom!”

The fishermen, for their part, say they were part of a culture that manipulated national catch figures to shield France’s bluefin fishing industry from international scrutiny. They charge that the real culprit is missing in the courtroom: their nation’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

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