Implications of Libya's Political Situation on Bluefin Tuna

The political unrest in Libya will likely effect the production of Bluefin Tuna in the Mediterranean Sea this Spring. If civil war continues in the region, the situation could also have an impact on prices for New England Tuna as well...


There is a great deal more at stake than Saif al Islam Gaddafi's small Bluefin ranch at Shabiat Elmergeb near Zitan in Northeast Libya, or the production from four small tonnaras located between Gazira and Garibulli in the Gulf of Sidra. Although Libya has 48 documented seiners (many of these re-flagged vessels of foreign origin) and declared annual Bluefin landings of only about 1000-1300 metric tons over the past several years, a very large percentage of the entire Mediterranean Bluefin tuna production is harvested from Libyan waters.

Because the traditional Bluefin spawning grounds in the Balearic Sea have been so over fished, and the spawning aggregation there is now so small, almost all the stock from ranches throughout the Mediterranean Sea is harvested either from the Gulf of Sidra (a spawning ground for Bluefin as well as a marine sanctuary) or the area between Libya and Malta, and then towed in transfer cages by tug boats to fattening operations through out the region. Not only to ranches in Malta and Tunisia, but to operations as far away as Alicante in Spain, Dogi Otok in Croatia and perhaps even Turkey.

These fishing grounds are now likely the last stronghold of spawning class Bluefin in the Mediterranean Sea. The only area where large individuals aggregate for spawning in schools large enough to support industrial scale seining. Saif al Islam Gaddafi, the first son of despot Muammar Gaddafi, and owner of Ras Al Hilal Marine Services controls not only Libya's largest tuna fattening operation, but the entire production of tuna from this area.

Not content with control over just the historically Bluefin Tuna rich waters of the Gulf of Sidra, in 2005 Gaddafi nationalized all the waters extending out 65 miles from Libya. This power play effectively forced Maltese fishermen from very productive fishing grounds near the Medina Bank, a possible spawning ground prolific with large Bluefin the Maltese had fished for centuries.

With a monopoly on the last genuinely viable Bluefin Tuna fishing grounds in the Mediterranean Sea, Gaddafi climbed in bed with several greedy tuna ranchers. First forming a partnership with Mourad Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of recently ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali and owner of the second largest seiner fleet in Tunisa (Tunisian Tuna SL). Then double dipping by the selling fishing rights to this area to Francisco Fuentes, an avaricious Bluefin ranch owner from Spain who is financed by several Japanese corporations including Mitsubishi, Maruha, Kanetomo and Mitsui. Grupo Fuentes y Hijos owns and operates tuna fattening operations throughout the Mediterranean and sold approximately 200 million Euros worth of Bluefin annually before the industry's contraction when European Bluefin quotas were reduced three years ago. Fuentes largest supplier of livestock is Jean Marie Avallone, a parsimonious Frenchmen who owns Medipeche and five super seiners based in Sete. Avallone is likely responsible for France eclipsing their 2007 Bluefin quota by 100% and exterminating the species from the Balearic Sea area.

Because Gaddafi is accountable to no one, Libyan waters were essentially a black hole for Bluefin Tuna. Approximately 12,000 metric tons of Bluefin were harvested from Libyan waters annually, but that is only what was declared to ICCAT. It's likely that a far greater quantity was taken. While compliance and enforcement have certainly improved a great deal in Europe over the past several seasons, there is no observer coverage of Libyan vessels so it's really unclear exactly what has been going on with Bluefin Tuna in Libya.

Although Japan now rejects a significant number of suspicious or improperly documented Bluefin imports, it's naive to think all illegal activities have ceased in the Mediterranean Sea and particularly in Libya. In all likelihood, at sea transfer from Libyan seiners into Korean or Taiwanese freezer vessels continues at some level. Facilitated by Japanese tuna traders like Ansai Yasutochi (Tokyo Seafoods), it's still very easy for Asian fishing companies to fudge the certificates of origin and catch area for their production, and perhaps with help from Yakuza, land their cargo in Japan.

It's highly unlikely that Gaddafi or Ras Al Hilal ever paid any real attention to ICCAT quotas or the minimum size limit of 30 kgs. Although marine scientists have had access at various time to study Libya's trap production, Libya only marginally recognizes ICCAT and I find it hard to believe the nation was fully compliant during the 2010 season. The use of aircraft for spotting tuna schools has been illegal in the Mediterranean since 2004, but French, Spanish and Libyan aircraft have continued to use Benghazi as a base of operations for tuna spotting sorties.

With most of Gadaffi's embassy staff worldwide seceding, and a large percentage of the country now in the control of anti-Gadaffi rebels, regime change in Libya seems imminent. A provisional government is already being formed, led by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the former Minister of Justice. Jalil has declared that Libya is to become a democracy, with elections to be held wirhin 90 days. But it's questionable whether the the interim government will be capable of managing Libya's fisheries. And of course it's also entirely possible that civil war will continue indefinitely within Libya. Either scenario could lead to complete lawlessness regarding Bluefin fishing and trade within the Gulf of Sidre. Or conversely, the collapse of both in Libya (as well as Tunisia).


Of course no one can predict what form a new government will take in Libya. The ramifications on the Mediterranean Bluefin industry are potentially landscape changing and there are several different possible scenarios. If the next government regime is a moderate, pro-western democracy, it's likely that Libya would become more compliant with ICCAT quotas and regulations. However, a radical Islamic faction could make the Bluefin situation much worse. Should that be the case (entirely possible) it's not inconceivable that black market exports of Libyan Bluefin could become a source of funding for Al Qaeda terrorist operations?

The start of the 2011 Mediterranean Bluefin season is just around the corner. The Gulf of Sidra traps may have already started producing and smaller tuna were likely being harvested by Tunisian and Libyan seiners during January/February. The seiner season for large spawning individuals begins in this area in late May or early June. Will the interim and future governments of Libya have the resolve and means to manage the nations fisheries?


Gaddafi's ouster will be good news to Malta for many reasons. Saif al Islam has hurt Maltese fishermen for years by undercutting prices and loading the cages of Maltese ranch operators like Charlie Azzopardi (Azzopardi Fisheries) and Joe Caruana (Fish & Fish) with cheap tuna. And it's possible that Maltese seiners will again have access to the Medina Bank tuna grounds. But there are other players in the Libyan tuna business besides Gaddafi: Alladin Weffati owns several seiners and the small Nour Al Hayat ranch. Perhaps nothing will change in the short term? The Fuentes group has surely already acquired Libyan fishing rights for 2011 so it's a good bet that the Medipeche seiner fleet will be back in the Gulf of Sidra by June.

However, should access to the fishing grounds within Libyan waters become restricted, it would become rather difficult for France, Spain and possibly some other countries to harvest their individual Bluefin quotas. There are no longer enough large tuna available in the traditionally fished areas of the Western Mediterranean Sea to support viable large-scale fisheries. European seiners operating lawfully in international waters are going to be more vulnerable to the piracy of eco terrorist groups like the Sea Shepperd. I imagine it would also affect the prices for ranched tuna. However, even after a contraction in the industry, there is still a surplus of farmed tuna from the Mediterranean. Annually, more ranched tuna is imported into Japan, than ends up being sold.

There was an ICCAT meeting on compliance last week in Barcelona, though I don't know if Hussein Zaroug, Libya's delegate and a personal friend of Saif al Islam, was in attendance. It was Zaroug, at the prompting of Masanori Miyahara (chief counselor of Japan's Fisheries Agency), who forced a premature vote before the issue could be formally discussed, at the CITES convention last March in Doha, resulting in the failure to adapt restrictions in the trade of Bluefin Tuna products.

With the entire world watching an interim government rapidly gaining strength, it seems that Muammar Gaddafi has only days, perhaps hours before he and his family are deported or killed. Or will civil war continue indefinitely in Libya? It's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out over the course of the 2011 Mediterranean Bluefin season, and further into the future...

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Comment by John LoGioco on March 10, 2011 at 10:50am
Thanks for posting this.  We should make an effort to track this situation as it unfolds.  Great post for the site.


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