Commentary by Sea Shepherd founder, Captain Paul Watson
Since mid-December, 2014, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been engaged in shutting down the illegal operations of four Antarctic toothfish poaching ships.
The Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker located the Nigerian-flagged poacher Thunder on December 16th on the Banzare Bank off the coast of Antarctica. The poachers immediately dropped their nets and fled as the Bob Barker gave chase. Almost 50 days later, after a chase of over three thousand miles, Sea Shepherd continues to chase the Thunder in what is now historically the longest pursuit of a poacher on the high seas. The chase continues and is now taking place some 700 miles off the coast of South Africa.
When it fled, the Thunder dropped all of its bottom set gill nets. The crew of Sea Shepherd’s Sam Simon spent over 200 hours hauling in 72 kilometers of this deadly net. More than $3 million dollars’ worth of illegally caught toothfish was returned to the sea.
In mid-January the New Zealand Naval frigate Wellington intercepted three vessels actively engaged in taking toothfish. All three were flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea, although that African nation denies that they are legally registered. Permission was given to board, but when the New Zealand Navy attempted to board, the poachers successfully fended them off. Claiming a shortage of fuel, the Wellington retreated to New Zealand, leaving the poachers to continue their illegal activities.
On February 2, 2015, the Sam Simon intercepted two of these toothfish poaching ships, the Kunlun and the Yongding. They were fishing only 50 miles offshore of the Australian Antarctic Research station, deep inside the Australian Antarctic Territorial waters.
Both poachers fled with the approach of the Sam Simon. Sea Shepherd Captain Sid Chakravarty chose to follow the Yongding as the Kunlun fled northward.
The Yongding attempted to intimidate Captain Chakravarty and swung about on a collision course with the Sam Simon. The Sea Shepherd ship stood fast, causing the poachers to swerve away and flee north. The pursuit continues.
These ships have been operating for years in the remote waters of the Southern Ocean in their quest to plunder “white gold,” the name they give to the cod-like fish called Antarctic toothfish. This fish is sold in restaurants under the name of Chilean sea bass.
These vessels are pirates flying fake flags and crewed by poorly paid, third-world men in an enterprise as dangerous as it is illegal.
These vessels are part of a global ghost fleet of poaching vessels that supply restaurants and markets around the world despite the diminishing supplies of fish.
It is big money, and the captains and the owners constantly change the names and the flags of these poorly maintained vessels. With the risk of seizure, investment in the ship itself is risky and thus they tend to be rusty, derelict vessels but with state-of-the-art net or longline deployment and retrieval gear.
Although on the surface they appear to represent needy third-world nations, the flags and homeports are a sham. Most of these vessels are operated by wealthy syndicates and the Thunder, Kunlun, Soghua and Yongding have a long history of name changes and ownerships masking their real beneficial owners.
The New Zealand government has discovered that the owner of at least three of these vessels is a Panamanian company called Stanley Management, whose offices are registered with the Panamanian law firm Sucre, Arias & Reyes. The Soghua is owned by a Belize company called Eastern Holdings Ltd.
What all four of these ships have in common are links to a Spanish company based in Galicia, Spain, called Vidal Armadores. Since 1999 the Vidal Armadores has seen 11 of their people arrested with seven convictions. The company has paid over three million euros in fines and has had three ships seized.
Three million in fines is insignificant considering this company has received over 16 million euros in European Union subsidies between 2003 and 2009. The Thunder alone is believed to have earned her underworld owners over 50 million euros.
The Sea Shepherd intervention has served to focus attention on these Southern Ocean pirates like never before. More importantly, by seizing nets and depriving the poachers of their profits, Sea Shepherd is inflicting a punishment on the owners of these vessels that they have not experienced before.
Last year the Thunder was arrested and detained in Malaysia, but was released and allowed to keep their catch after paying a fine of $90,000. That was just a small price to pay for doing their illegal business. This year the Thunder has lost their nets, their stolen fish and all of their profits.
All four of these vessels are listed as criminal operations by Interpol. All have a record of illegal fishing activity, and all four have been caught illegally fishing in the waters of the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Requests for assistance by Sea Shepherd to the Australian government have been ignored.