In April 2009, the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agro Industry, Food Production and Security issued an exceptional letter of authorisation to Marine Culture of Mascarene Ltd (MCML). It states that the company is authorised to:
“…collect up to 4000 units of live marine ornamental fish per month, to constitute a brood stock and the surplus to be exported.”
Annexes to the letter specify the conditions of the authorisation, including geographical limitations and a list of ornamental fish and invertebrates that were suggested for breeding. The fish include several species of clown fish (cousins of the main character in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo”) and the invertebrates comprise various species of soft coral.
For background, we talked to ornamental fish collectors with decades of experience in Mauritius. They explained that their methods were highly sustainable since they removed only a small fraction of juvenile fish from the wild, while protecting adults of breeding age. These fish were caught on demand in response to requests wholesalers around the world and their quota from Fisheries Division was around 5000 fish per annum. They were dismayed that MCML had permission to extract nearly ten times this number. At that rate the stocks of clown fish in the area defined would be on the brink of collapse within a few years as the collectors would have to remove virtually every fish they encountered to reach the quota.
However, they further explained that it is not commercially viable to breed the fish suggested by Fisheries Division in Mauritius. Many of the species are relatively easy to breed and this is already conducted in countries which constitute the main markets for ornamental marine fish, thus eliminating the need for expensive long haul air freighting of the fish. Further investigation revealed that Werner Menzel, the main shareholder in MCML, is one of the major distributors of ornamental fish in Europe but has virtually no experience or operations in breeding them.
Given that one mating pair of fish can produce thousands of spawn, it is inconceivable why a quota of nearly 50,000 wild fish per year would be required to build up a breed stock. Perhaps the clue is in the short phrase “and the surplus to be exported”. Our suspicions were confirmed when we questioned people who had visited MCML’s operation site. They stated that the facilities consisted of short term holding tanks that were totally inappropriate for breeding.
We learned that Mr Menzel was assisted by Parmeet Ramtohul, whose wife was apparently given a 45% share in MCML. According to Mr Ramtohul, the exceptional letter of authorisation was obtained with the help of Mrs Ratacharan of Fisheries Division. She had been promised all-expenses paid holidays and in return she had written half of the MCML’s proposal to ensure its application was approved by the appropriate committee.
When we spoke to Mrs Ratacharan, she refused to answer our enquiries and instead referred us to the Director. We sent him a fax detailing our questions about the authorisation and he advised us that he had instructed Mrs Ratacharan to answer them. However, we have since been informed that no answers will be given until after a court case between Mr Ramtohum and Mr Menzel are concluded as Fisheries Division is a party.
We have discovered a conversation on a bulletin board for ornamental fish dealers. In it, Mr Ramtohul declared that he was looking for partners to help him catch and export fish from Mauritius, including the highly sought-after Gem Tangs, which retail at over $3000. This fish was not included on the list of species suggested for breeding.
Mr Menzel is currently out of the country. However, we understand from Mr Ramtohul that the operations of MCML are continuing under the supervision of the German Consul in Mauritius, Mr Rainer Goetse. We have asked the German High Commission in Madagascar to look into this.
From our investigations, we conclude that is quite possible that Mr Menzel and Mr Ramtohul set up a front business pretending that they would breed certain fish. However, their real intention was to catch and export much more valuable wild fish from Mauritian waters. If this is the case, a question remains: which officials knew about it and were complicit in its implementation?
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