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Fiery end for the last of the toothfish pirates

  • Toothfish, often sold as “Chilean sea bass” have long been targeted by poachers in the remote and hostile Southern Ocean.
  • Poaching has not only harmed toothfish stocks, but rendered the study and sustainable management of them all but impossible.
  • The conservation group Sea Shepherd launched a campaign in late 2014 to disrupt illegal toothfish fishing. With the scuttling of the Viking, six of the worst offenders have either been destroyed or apprehended.

Captain Siddharth Chakravarty said he tracked the Viking for two months before he could guess where it might go next.

“We detected the ship and determined it was moving in the direction of Indonesia, most likely toward ports like Phuket, Batam, and Johor — all hotspots such ships are likely to call,” he told Mongabay.

The Nigerian-flagged Viking is one of the notorious “Bandit 6” — six trawlers wanted by Interpol for their brazen poaching of protected toothfish, lucrative, slow-growing, bottom-dwelling fish that live in the remote waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Toothfish are typically unloaded in Southeast Asian ports to the tune of thousands of tons a year.

Prized for their white, flaky meat and high oil content, toothfish — both the Antarctic (Dissostichus mawsoni) and Patagoninan (D. eleginoides) species — fetch huge prices on their way to the tables of upscale seafood restaurants across the globe, often under the moniker “Chilean sea bass.”

Often sold as Chilean seabass the Patagonian Toothfish stocks faced collapse during the 1990s due to rampant IUU fishing in the Southern Ocean. Image courtesy of US FDA/Wikimedia Commons.
Often sold as Chilean sea bass, toothfish stocks faced collapse during the 1990s due to rampant IUU fishing in the Southern Ocean. Image courtesy of US FDA/Wikimedia Commons.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, a 300 ton haul of the fish nets an estimated $4-6 million for the pirates. Though the toothfish has not been listed as endangered, scientists say rampant Antarctic poaching has harmed their stocks and made them impossible to count.

The staggering payoffs mean the rewards of illegal fishing have generally outweighed the risks, with toothfish poachers exploiting weak laws and unscrupulous port officials to deftly evade arrest for years.

Sea Shepherd, best known for its televised campaigns against Japanese whaling, launched “Operation Icefish” 15 months ago with the aim of bringing the Bandit 6 to justice and shutting down the toothfish-poaching industry.

Fisheries experts expressed doubt that the campaign would succeed in the shadowlands of the Southern Ocean, where Sea Shepherd has no authority to detain boats, and where poachers have eluded Interpol for decades.

Some even feared the group’s direct-action tactics, which include confiscating nets and stalking ships for hundreds, even thousands, of miles, could backfire.

“Sea Shepherd was told they… had no authority to act,” Paul Watson, the group’s founder, wrote on its website earlier this month, and that “any attempt to confiscate nets [set by illegal trawlers] would result in charges of theft, or absurdly, of illegal fishing.”

By the time the Viking showed up on Chakravarty’s radar aboard the Steve Irwin last month, however, doubts about the group’s ability to bring the Bandit 6 to heel were lifting.

Catching the Viking

Through Sea Shepherd’s strategy of harassing illegal fishing vessels and facilitating coordination between Interpol and national governments, four of the six Bandit 6 ships — the Perlon, Songhua, Yong Ding, and Kunlun — are currently in detention. The latter three, like the Viking, have all been linked to the Spain-based Vidal Armadores fishing cabal. None of these vessels are likely to return to sea.

The Thunder takes on water before sinking in April, 2015. Photo by Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd Global.
The Thunder takes on water before sinking in April, 2015. Photo by Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global.

Another trawler, the Thunder, was scuttled last April by its own captain following an epic 10,250 mile chase led by Sea Shepherd Captain Peter Hammarstedt of the Bob Barker. The self-sabotage was an apparent attempt to destroy evidence of its illegal cargo, and ended the longest such chase in maritime history.

Only the Viking remained at large.

The Viking had actually been detained by Malaysian authorities in March 2015, but was released months later after paying $71,500 in fines for minor violations. Watson expressed suspicion in his post that bribes could have had a role in securing its release. During an ensuing investigation into the ship’s true owners, however, the Nigerian government disowned the vessel, rendering it stateless — the legal equivalent of a pirate. The designation would later play a pivotal role in its capture.

“After six days patrolling the Malacca Strait looking for the Viking, it became clear we needed more eyes on the water to get the Viking,” Chakravarty said, referring to the 805-kilometer (500-mile) stretch of water separating the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. “That’s when we contacted the Indonesian authorities for help.”

In Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, Sea Shepherd found a willing partner.

Since taking over at the ministry in November 2014, Susi (as she is affectionately known) has made eradicating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing her number-one mission. In addition to passing a bevy of new foreign-fishing regulations and cracking down on the slave labor driving the industry, Susi has blown up over 150 ships accused of fishing crimes.

“Susi is bold,” Chakravarty told Mongabay. “Under Indonesian law there is now an opportunity for stricter action.”

The Viking, alongside an Indonesian Navy vessel. Photo by Gary Stokes / Sea Shepherd Global.
The Viking, alongside an Indonesian Navy vessel. Photo by Gary Stokes/Sea Shepherd Global.

Acting on location tips provided by Sea Shepherd, on February 26 the Indonesian Navy detained the Viking in waters south of Singapore for failing to notify authorities of its entry into Indonesian territory.

Upon boarding the ship, the ministry’s special task force on illegal fishing seized 399-kilometer- (247-mile-) long gillnets. Such nets, notorious for their indiscriminate capture of marine life, are illegal in excess of 15 kilometers under Indonesian law. Unlike in Malaysia, such evidence of illegal fishing can be used to seize or even scuttle a ship.

Two weeks after its arrest, the Viking was relocated to Pangandaran, West Java. There, on March 14, an assembly of ministry figures, journalists, and Chakravarty himself watched as the boat was blown up in a pristine blue-green cove.

Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti on board the Viking, prior to its destruction. Photo by Gary Stokes/Sea Shepherd Global.
Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti on board the Viking prior to its destruction. Photo by Gary Stokes/Sea Shepherd Global.
The Viking explodes in Pangandaran, West Java, Indonesia, on March 14. Photo by Gary Stokes/Sea Shepherd Global.
The Viking explodes in Pangandaran, West Java, Indonesia, on March 14. Photo by Gary Stokes/Sea Shepherd Global.

“Let this serve as a deterrent to others,” Susi announced ahead of the scuttling. ”You may go freely in the rest of the world, but once entering Indonesia, this is the consequence.”

The ship’s captain, a Chilean national named Huan Venesa, and its crew of 10 from Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Myanmar, and Peru, have been detained in country.

Meanwhile, last month authorities from Spain, Interpol, and Europol raided the offices of Vidal Armadores in Ribeira and detained several members including its leader and his son, reported the Spanish paper La Voz de Galicia. A Spanish court has reportedly hit the Vidal family with a fine of $20 million.

Exploiting the holes

Over the last decade, three strategies have allowed the Bandit 6 vessels to operate with near impunity.

First, by centering operations on the Southern Ocean’s high seas (international waters outside national jurisdiction), poachers place themselves beyond the reach of national governments.

“If the activity is on the high seas… the vessels enjoy a freedom of navigation,” Chakravarty said.

“Fishing is interpreted as one of those freedoms.”

Second, the regulation of fishing in such international waters is managed by voluntary associations known as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). In the Southern Ocean, the relevant RFMO is the 24-member-country Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

If a country chooses to be part of a RFMO it is called a Contracting Party (CP) and if it doesn’t, it is referred to as a Non Contracting Party (NCP).

“Under RFMO rules, only CP-owned and flagged vessels are allowed to fish within the area of control of the RFMO,” Chakravarty said. “Should a NCP country choose to flag and operate a vessel in the RFMO’s region of interest, there is nothing that the CP nations can do proactively to control this fishing activity.”

Finally the Bandit 6 toothfish poachers have made off with their bounty by using ports in Southeast Asian and African countries that have limited resources to tackle crimes.

Taken together, these three factors mean it is all but impossible for a poor country to effectively handle a crime committed by a Spanish-owned, Nigerian-flagged vessel under the command of a Chilean fishing in the high seas, Chakravarty said — in other words, by a poacher like the Viking.

A new model?

With the scuttling of the Viking, Sea Shepherd will invest more attention in its ongoing campaign to stop destructive driftnet fishing in the high seas of the Indian Ocean, where the practice also flourishes.

When asked if the group’s success offered a new model for tackling crime on the high seas, Chakravarty said meaningful deterrence would mean updating accords like United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which puts a full 41 percent of the planet — the area designated high seas — “into a jurisdictional vacuum where resource exploitation is allowed but enforcement is not.”

National governments needed to do more too, he said, in terms of stemming crimes before they fester and reining in corruption.

In terms of toothfish poaching in the Antarctic, the penalties on Vidal Armadores mean the the worst toothfish poachers have been removed from the sea, and populations of the toothfish will hopefully be able to rebound.

“However, toothfish poaching offers millions of dollars in profit every year, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Antarctica sees a resurgence in illegality once again,” Chakravarty said.

If that happens, he said the group would be back.


CORRECTION 6/1/16: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the Spanish company linked to toothfish poaching in Antarctica. The company’s name is Vidal Armadores and it is headquartered in Ribeira, Spain. We regret the error.


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