French officials finally respond to allegations of doctored data

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ICIJ’s Looting the Seas investigation, on the $4 billion black market in bluefin tuna, has attracted worldwide attention since its release this weekend. The series reveals how for a decade officials turned a blind eye to massive overfishing of Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna — source of the world’s most coveted sushi — and manipulated national catch figures to protect their overbuilt fishing fleets.

ICIJ reporters sent a dozen written requests for interviews with officials within the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, which oversees one of the world’s major tuna fishing fleets.

Forty-eight days after ICIJ sent its first interview request to the ministry, officials finally responded Monday to allegations that for years leading up to 2008, the ministry downplayed the final catch figures of the nation’s bluefin tuna fishing fleet before reporting those figures to the European Commission.

Since 2007 the ministry “has stopped the practices of earlier years and strictly enforces the regulations,” the statement says. “In complete transparency, France declared all its overfishing and was sanctioned in 2008. Since 2008, the quotas have been strictly enforced.”

ICIJ now has evidence that even in the 2010 fishing season, Mediterranean fleets – including that of France – have flouted the rules set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). ICIJ will release those findings Wednesday.

In attempts to obtain a response on allegations that catch figures were downplayed, ICIJ asked for comments from Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Bruno Le Maire and Jean-Marie Aurand, a former director of fishing and currently the ministry’s secretary general. After a series of emails, the press secretary responded with an email saying, “Currently absent. Please send urgent emails to cab-presse.agripeche@agriculture.gouv.fr.” That final email request was ignored.

ICIJ also attempted to interview two other former directors of fishing and former Minister Michel Barnier. All three declined to comment.

ICIJ’s seven-month investigation is appearing as a BBC World News documentary and in publications worldwide. Among our partners: the EU ObserverLe SoirEl PaisIl Fatto Quotidiano,Trouw, the Sunday Times and The Huffington Post.

Members of the European Parliament and WWF are hosting a showing of the BBC documentary tomorrow at the Parliament.

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