HMNZS Wellington’s green radar screen looked like it was showing rush-hour traffic. Suddenly, amid the hundreds of pale spots representing icebergs drifting in unison away from Antarctica’s Mertz Glacier 50 nautical miles away, navigator lieutenant Matthew Wilson noticed one spot moving independently. “Found it!” he shouted. The captain, lieutenant commander Graham MacLean, peered at the screen. Yes, this must be the prey he and his crew had spent four days searching for, a member of the world’s most elusive pirate fishing fleet. Also known as the Bandit 6, the six Spanish-owned trawlers specialised in catching and selling the deep-dwelling Antarctic toothfish at a huge profit.
Since 2010, the Royal New Zealand Navy has been patrolling the Ross Sea during the short toothfish-fishing season, checking on the activity of the fleet of legal fishermen. But this year, on his second patrol, MacLean was unexpectedly diverted west after the government detected the presence of three pirate fishing vessels believed to be controlled by the Vidal Armadores company based in Ribeira, Spain.
The instructions given to the 35-year-old skipper were to catch the poachers in the act and gather evidence against them. It was the first time the armed forces of any country had confronted these pirates in remote Antarctic waters. By week’s end, he had found and filmed all three, returning with one of the biggest hauls of evidence against the fleet in years. As a result, Interpol would issue notices on all three.
At the end of the season, thanks in part to good luck, all six vessels were out of action or under arrest, and observers began suggesting the illegal fishery may have been dealt a fatal blow.
The toothfish emerged onto the gastronomic scene literally from the abyss in the early 1980s after an American fish importer, Lee Lantz, spotted it in a market in Valparaiso, Chile. Until then, this remarkably ugly predator—which can reach the size and weight of a person—had been protected by its predilection for some of the coldest waters on Earth. The Patagonian toothfish inhabits ink-dark sea bottoms at a depth of 1000 metres, and the Antarctic toothfish—which possesses its own anti-freeze glycoproteins—makes its home at 2000 metres.
Though the toothfish is technically a perch, with flesh that tastes like cod, Lantz decided to market both varieties in the United States as Chilean sea bass. They soon became valued substitutes for the dwindling stocks of North Atlantic cod and demand rose, particularly in the US.
Chefs found the fish—bland and oily enough to be almost impossible to overcook—a perfect canvas upon which to express their creativity, and were prepared to pay high prices for it.
Long-liners, which deploy kilometres of horizontal line with thousands of baited hooks at different depths, were quick to figure out how to reach the toothfish. In a few years, they largely fished out the bigger specimens off the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina and went on to deplete the waters off Britain’s South Georgia, France’s Kerguelen Islands, Norway’s Bouvet Island and South Africa’s Prince Edward Island, along with hundreds of sea-mounts in the high seas.
Perth-based Austral Fisheries joined the fishery in Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles off the uninhabited, glacier-covered Heard Island, at the southern end of the Indian Ocean, in 1997.
“When we found the fishing grounds, there were a half-dozen illegal boats there,” recalled Austral’s chief executive, David Carter. The company spent AU$2 million to lobby the Australian authorities to patrol the area and to form in 2003 the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO), which is run from Austral’s offices.
Poachers eventually vanished from Heard and the EEZs and were replaced by legal, controlled-catch fishing operators. “If we had been a year or two later, the result would have been very different,” said Carter, whose company now accounts for 70 per cent of the Australian catch.
Scientists estimate that around a third of the adult population of Patagonian toothfish was wiped out in the 1990s and 2000s, when the fishery was dominated by legal ships from Russia, Spain and Asia, and other nations that were fishing illegally.
As a result, American environmentalists launched the “Give Sea Bass a Pass” campaign that depressed demand and prices. By 2010, the poachers’ ranks had reduced, and those that remained stayed away from the EEZs around the British, French, Norwegian and Australian subantarctic islands, concentrating instead on the international waters off Antarctica. Today, the total catch of toothfish, worldwide, is 24,800 tonnes, worth around NZ$570 million.
The jurisdiction around the white continent, however, is more complicated— Antarctic waters are managed by a 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). New Zealand is a party to the commission, an original signatory to the Antarctic Treaty under which it falls, and holds a territorial claim that embraces the rich fishing grounds of the Ross Sea. But the rules controlling the fishery in those waters apply only to ships from those 25 CCAMLR members, so a ship registered in another country is not bound by the rules, as long as it holds a valid international licence from that nation’s authorities.
However, the poachers operating in those regions abandoned all pretence of legality, carrying false papers and flags of many countries, none of which they were registered in or had obtained fishing licences from.
They became stateless pirates.Which Sea Shepherd captains say gives naval vessels from regional powers such as New Zealand and Australia a legal basis for arresting illegal fishers and bringing them back to their ports for trial, sentencing and possibly confiscation or sinking of their vessels, which has happened in the past.
Furthermore, pirates also switched from long-lines to illegal nylon gill nets, which were destructive but highly effective, hanging like curtains seven metres high and 15 kilometres long along the seafloor and ensnaring everything that runs into them.
The ease with which pirates have been able to sell their illegal catch stains the reputation of the legal toothfish fishery, which is committed to sustainable catch levels to ensure the stock will never drop below 50 per cent of unfished levels. COLTO members and CCAMLR had the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certify their fisheries, which allowed them to sell their catch in high-end US retailers such as Whole Foods, where MSC-labelled fillets fetch more than US$60 a kilogram. About 70 per cent of the total catch of toothfish is now MSC-certified, 10 per cent taken legally by other fishing fleets, and an estimated 20 per cent caught illegally by Spanish pirates.
“I think CCAMLR generally does a pretty good job,” said Martin Collins, head of fisheries in South Georgia, which also had to fend off an invasion of poachers. According to Stuart Hanchet, head fisheries scientist at NIWA, so far the Ross Sea population of Antarctic toothfish is about 80 per cent of its unfished level. The total allowable catch of about 3000 tonnes a year is designed to reduce the stock to 50 per cent of its unfished level in 35 years, an unusually prudent goal. But some scientists believe that even the MSC-certified Ross Sea fishery of Antarctic toothfish—which was never plundered by poachers—is based on thin data and over-optimistic assumptions.
“They set the total allowable catch in 2004, when they thought the fish started reproducing when it was 10 years old,” said David Ainley, an American marine ecologist who studies the Antarctic. “Then they found out it actually starts at 17, but they didn’t reduce the catch.”
Fishers target the largest, oldest and most valuable specimens, resulting in a reduction in the average size of the adults caught. The same thing happened after the poaching frenzy of the Patagonian toothfish, which once weighed between 20 and 100 kilograms and today averages eight or nine kilograms for mature adults, Ainley noted.
“The current objective of 50 per cent may easily fail to prevent a much larger reduction from taking place,” agreed Peter Abrams, a biologist at the University of Toronto who studies toothfish.
THE NOOSE TIGHTENS
The chain of events that would put the entire toothfish-poaching fleet out of action started far from the Antarctic.
In November 2014, rear admiral Michael Noonan, commander of Australia’s Border Protection Command, told a meeting of a dozen agencies in Canberra that recent successes in stemming the flow of illegal-immigrant boats now allowed him to assign planes and ships to crack down on toothfish poachers returning from the Antarctic, as they transit west of Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands on their way to Southeast Asian ports. This year, Australian ships could board them at sea to gather evidence that would be turned over to port authorities, he proposed.
In Hamburg, Germany, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a United Nations court which regulates international fishing, ruled that states have an obligation to ensure that vessels flying their flag are not illegally fishing in the EEZs of other states. “This means,” said Duncan Currie, a lawyer specialising in maritime law, “that flag states that fail to control their fishing vessels may have to pay compensation to coastal states for depleted fish stocks and lost income caused by illegal fishing.”
In Spain, pressure from local and foreign environmental groups and from the Spanish fishing industry led the government to pass a sweeping law barring Spanish citizens from profiting from illegal fishing abroad.
“Spain has ended a long history of coddling poachers and has become a model for the world,” said Maria José Cornax of the ocean conservation advocacy organisation Oceana in Madrid, noting that not so long ago the Vidal Armadores fishing company had managed to wheedle government subsidies for its poaching.
In The Hague last year, the International Court of Justice ordered a halt to a Japanese programme that had captured more than 10,000 whales in the Southern Ocean since 1988, and Japan agreed to comply at least for a year. This freed Sea Shepherd—a marine conservation organisation with a reputation for aggressive intervention, mostly against whalers—to send two ships from its fleet into the Antarctic for the summer toothfish-fishing season.
Skippers Siddharth ‘Sid’ Chakravarty, 32, and Peter Hammarstedt, 30, decided to use their expertise in navigating the ice-strewn and stormy Southern Ocean to drive out the pirates. By preventing them from fishing, they would hit the owners where it hurts—in the wallet. “We realised that Australia and New Zealand lacked the political incentive to go after them because the poachers weren’t fishing in their EEZs any more,” Hammarstedt said. “So we decided to fill that law-enforcement void.”
It was widely known that the six pirate ships changed names and flags after they were spotted by planes or ships, then slipped into busy Third World ports unrecognised to sell their catch. “As long as we were with them 24 hours a day, there would be no chance of that,” Hammarstedt said. The Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker would do the chasing and the Sam Simon would pick up the abandoned nets and bring them to Interpol as evidence. It was a simple plan, and it had never been tried.
THE WELLINGTON’S LUCK
Back aboard the Wellington on January 6, MacLean described a plan of action—once he’d gotten over the sheer luck of finding his target in a search area of several thousand square miles. The ship had an advantage: a high-resolution Toplite camera on a mast that rose 30 metres above the water. It found the pirate vessel after the radar detected it 16 nautical miles away.
In order to surprise it, MacLean and his crew would inch closer, making sure there were enough icebergs taller than the pirates’ 10-metre-high radar between the two vessels. Then, with his back to the sun, MacLean would send his eight-metre rigid inflatable boat with a crew of six equipped with cameras to catch the pirates in the act. (In a famous case detailed in the book Hooked, the crew of Vidal Armadores’ Viarsa was acquitted by an Australian court in 2005 in part because the Australian patrol boat that arrested them had failed to gather compelling evidence of illegal fishing. MacLean would not make the same mistake.)
As the Wellington neared Commonwealth Bay, the weather cleared, casting the icebergs into sharp relief. “It was like seeing the world in high definition after seeing it in analogue,” MacLean recalled. He was struck by the different environment, one the Royal New Zealand Navy had never operated in: while the Ross Sea had much smaller pieces of ice, and more of them, here the icebergs were the size of buildings, and the sheer abundance of seals, whales, penguins and seabirds left the crew slack-jawed. “The colours, the clarity and remoteness are just stunning,” MacLean said.
It took the rigid inflatable boat’s crew 45 minutes to reach the vessel. They caught the pirates red-handed at 9.30pm, in still-bright sunshine. But the surprise element was wasted: the crew of the pirate ship, who were mainly Asian, simply kept on drawing up their net and paid little attention to the cameras trained on them. The ship’s officers kept out of sight. The 55-metre vessel, white and streaked with rust, was named Songhua and flew the flag of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny Spanish-speaking West African nation. (Formerly the Namibia-flagged Paloma V, it had docked in Auckland in 2008 with 98 tonnes of toothfish on board. Despite an investigation that showed it was deeply involved in an illegal toothfish fleet, it was allowed to leave with a warning.)
The Wellington came up alongside the Songhua and raised the captain on VHF radio. He said he spoke only Spanish, so a Spanish-speaking crewman of the Wellington translated. MacLean told the skipper that he was fishing illegally inside a zone regulated by CCAMLR and was employing illegal gear, and he should stop and leave. The captain replied that Equatorial Guinea was not a member of CCAMLR and was not bound by its rules, which was true. MacLean asked to board the ship, and the captain refused, but agreed to lower copies of the ship’s registration and insurance.
“As soon as we saw them, we could tell they were fakes,” MacLean said. “Still, we had to follow procedures, so we asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact the government of Equatorial Guinea and ask them if the ship was really registered there, and whether the government would grant us permission to board it.”
The crew calmly finished hauling in their net and headed north-west, and the Wellington’s mast-top camera picked up a buoy that showed they would be hauling in another net.
“At that point, our radar picked up another ship 25 miles west of us,” MacLean recounted. Having documented the Songhua illegally fishing, “we decided to go after the second ship, knowing we could still monitor the first as it kept fishing”.
Again, the Wellington manoeuvred behind the icebergs and launched the inflatable. The second vessel, almost identical in appearance, was the Kunlun, which an Australian Orion surveillance plane had spotted sailing south towards Antarctica in December. It flew the same flag as the Songhua, its crew was just as unmoved by the Wellington’s appearance, and the captain proffered papers that were equally unconvincing.
“Their methods were so similar I feel sure they were fishing collaboratively,” MacLean said.
The Wellington stayed with them for five days, filming the Kunlun almost continuously. When its crew pulled in their nets, the Wellington came closer so the fishery officers could count their catch, most of which was not toothfish.
“They were horrified by the waste,” MacLean said. It was the first time that outsiders were able to document with such precision a bottom gill net toothfish fishery in action.
“We had a lot of sympathy for the crew,” MacLean said. The navy sailors wore Gore- Tex pants and jackets over many layers of fleece, while the Indonesians picking the fish out of the nets for six hours at a time had only yellow oilskin smocks to protect them against the spray chilled by -6ºC cold.
Six days after the first intercept, on January 12, MacLean received word that a third pirate vessel was to his east. After an eight-hour search in deteriorating weather, he found the Yongding. It was also fishing, but in much more difficult conditions in a sea mostly covered in pack ice.
Just as the Yongding crew finished bringing in a net, MacLean heard back from the foreign ministry: Equatorial Guinea had averred that none of the three ships was registered there and it had no objection to his boarding them. So he asked the skipper of the Yongding if he could do so and, as before, was refused.
By then, the wind was gusting to 35 knots, the swells were up to three metres and the temperature had dropped to -10ºC. Navigating the ship safely became a challenge as whitecaps made it very hard to see flat pieces of ice known as growlers that can tear a gash in a hull.
To MacLean’s surprise, the Yongding— which, like the others, didn’t seem to have any ice-protecting reinforcement along its waterline, as the Wellington does—started zig-zagging erratically and picking up speed. MacLean was “worried that maybe the skipper was risking his ship because he knew we’d rescue him if it sank”, a proposition he found unappealing. Meanwhile, the other two ships appeared to have kept on fishing.
At 4am on the 14th, the wind died and was replaced by dense fog that reduced visibility to a few metres. The conditions were still too risky for what is termed a non-compliant boarding, and the Wellington had reached its minimum fuel level for a safe passage back to New Zealand. At 6am, MacLean set a course for home. “We had been more successful than I could ever have imagined,” he said.
THE BOB BARKER’S PERSISTENCE
While the Wellington headed for home and the Kunlun, Yongding and Songhua kept on hauling in their gill nets, another drama was unfolding 3400 nautical miles away. Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker was drifting near a fourth pirate vessel, the Thunder, on day 28 of its pursuit. The Dutch-flagged Bob Barker, built in Norway in 1951 as a whaling ship, was strengthened at the water line to resist moderate ice conditions. (It is named after the host of the American TV programme The Price is Right, who gave US$5 million towards its purchase.)
Unlike the other three poachers believed to be owned by Vidal Armadores, which were built cheaply in Asia, the Thunder was a state-of-the-art Arctic trawler when it was built in 1959, also in Norway. Like the other pirate vessels, it featured prominently on CCAMLR’s list of pirate ships, technically called the “non-contracting party IUU list”. (IUU stands for illegal, unreported and unregulated, though it’s often used synonymously with illegal.)
The Thunder had been sighted fishing illegally in CCAMLR waters 17 times, had had six successive owners and had changed flags 12 times and names eight times. Its owner, also believed to be Spanish, had managed to remain in the shadows.
Hammarstedt, the Bob Barker ’s Swedish-American skipper, had never seen a toothfish pirate ship in his nine anti-whaling campaigns. When he departed Hobart, he headed for the Banzare Bank, between Heard Island and Antarctica, an area further from any port than just about anywhere. After a two-week passage, he chose an area with a depth of 2000 metres, perfect for Antarctic toothfish, where his radar showed the weather was good and the sea was sheltered to the west by a thick ice tongue. “I was trying to think like a fisherman,” Hammarstedt said. “I figured we’d find something, I just didn’t know if it would take us a day or a month.”
Two days into the search, on December 17, his radar detected an object that eventually emerged from the fog as a faint silhouette. “I had a binder with pictures of all six, and I recognised the Thunder,” Hammarstedt said.
The 61-metre ship, which flew a Nigerian flag, had been hauling a net recently—it was discharging fish guts, to the delight of a flock of seagulls hovering above the stern. (Toothfish are beheaded, then gutted and tailed before they are packed in boxes and frozen.) There was a fresh net on deck ready to be deployed. As soon as the Bob Barker appeared, the Thunder turned away at top speed, and its Chilean skipper, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo, told Hammarstedt on the radio that he was just passing through.
“First they tried to lose us in the ice, instead of going around it,” Hammarstedt said. “But of course, following another vessel in ice is very easy, because he breaks the ice for you.” Eventually, the Thunder simply set a course for the north-west. After a month of pursuit, it stopped and drifted in a region of calm seas a few hundred miles south of Madagascar.
“I calculated that if he was burning fuel just for the generator, like I was, this could last two years,” says Hammarstedt. “It was a pretty depressing idea.”
Eventually, the Thunder rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went up the south-west African coast. Hammarstedt was eager to know the destination. Would the Thunder pull into Namibia, where there is an industrial fishing fleet controlled by Spanish companies? Or Equatorial Guinea, whose flag was used by the Vidal Armadores ships?
THE SAM SIMON’S TOIL
When the Thunder sped away from its fishing grounds on December 17, with the Bob Barker in hot pursuit, the Sam Simon, the second vessel deployed by Sea Shepherd for its anti-toothfish-pirates campaign, was 2000 nautical miles away. It travelled to the Southern Ocean and spent three weeks finding and picking up five gill nets abandoned by the Thunder, totalling 72 kilometres in length.
The Sam Simon’s crew counted and weighed the catch, releasing the few creatures that were still alive. Most were rotten. There were 1200 Antarctic toothfish averaging 42 kilograms each—five times as large as the Patagonian toothfish caught by the commercial fisheries. However, toothfish made up only a quarter of the total catch: the rest was mostly crabs, along with other fish, sea stars, jellyfish, coral and octopus. “It’s incredibly destructive,” said Chakravarty, the skipper of the Sam Simon.
With the Sam Simon’s afterdeck piled high with green nets still smelling of decaying sea life, Chakravarty set off to find the three ships that the Wellington had left on January 14. He headed for Storegg Bank, due south of India, another toothfish fishing ground 2500 nautical miles from where the Wellington had left the trio, on the other side of the area claimed by Australia.
On the morning of February 2, a week into Chakravarty’s search, the wind was blowing at 20 knots and the seas were dark grey and full of dangerous ice, forcing the Sam Simon to move slowly. Then Chakravarty’s first mate detected two tell-tale blips on the radar. Soon the Yongding and Kunlun emerged from the murk.
“The moment they saw us, they turned north,” he said. The Sam Simon—which is dramatically bedecked in grey camouflage with giant shark teeth painted on its high bow—surged forward and caught up with the Yongding. The aft trawl door of the pirate ship was open and fishing nets were on deck, ready to be deployed.
“As we pulled up, he took a swipe at me and came within 10 metres,” Chakravarty said. Then the Sam Simon caught up with the Kunlun, which also tried to ram him and foul his propeller with fishing lines. When the two pirates separated, Chakravarty chose to follow the Kunlun as she moved north, staying just outside the 200-nautical-mile coastal waters claimed by Australia.
On February 8, with the Kunlun now 900 nautical miles from the nearest toothfish habitat, Chakravarty peeled off to join the Bob Barker in its continued chase of the Thunder. He believed the Kunlun wouldn’t have enough fuel to go back, resume fishing and still be able to reach an Asian port to unload its catch.
On February 23, an Australian Orion P3 found Kunlun 900 nautical miles west of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It circled as the officers of the RV Triton, a trimaran of the Customs and Border Protection Service, boarded and then released it. Asked why, Noonan, the Australian Border Protection Command chief, replied in an email: “The process of bringing a stateless ship into your domestic port is legally complex and very expensive in terms of berthage and maintenance. We need to be sure of a demonstrable and positive outcome, and without definitive proof, this is very difficult in the context of Australian law.”
When Kunlun arrived in Phuket— renamed the Taishan and flying a false Indonesian flag—its Peruvian captain, Jose Alberto Zavaleta Salas, reported the cargo as 182 tonnes (about half the ship’s capacity) of grouper, valued at about 15 million baht [NZ$650,000]. However, the Phuket Gazette reported that “experts have confirmed that the ship had in fact offloaded 182 tonnes of Antarctic toothfish, valued at about 179 million baht [NZ$7.8 million]”.
After spending a few days with the Bob Barker and transferring some provisions, the Sam Simon showed its stern—still piled high with nets—to the Thunder and headed around the Cape to Mauritius to hand the nets and other evidence to Interpol and local authorities.
THE ATLAS COVE’S CAMEO APPEARANCE
On March 16, Steve Paku, 51, of Nelson, New Zealand, was off the coast of Portugal, skippering Austral Fisheries’ latest acquisition, the Atlas Cove, a 68-metre toothfish longliner-cum-icefish-trawler on its way south from a major refit in Norway. He received an email from Carter, his chief executive, informing him of the pursuit of the Thunder and suggesting he might want to make a small detour and join it to show the legal fishermen’s support for Sea Shepherd’s efforts.
Paku, a fishing vessel skipper since his mid-20s, was delighted.
“We spent years trying to chase these guys out of the Heard Island waters,” he said over a scratchy satellite phone connection from somewhere in the Indian Ocean. “To see one caught like that was like a dream come true.” He emailed Hammarstedt and they agreed to rendezvous.
On March 25, the Atlas Cove, maintaining radio silence, met the trio 950 nautical miles west of the Congo and pulled up alongside the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, a few hundred metres behind the Thunder, which was sailing at a fuel-economical seven knots. The Sam Simon lowered a rigid inflatable boat to photograph and film the procession.
As it proceeded in silence, Paku remembered how he’d seen the Thunder back in 2003, when it was called Typhoon 1, and how another Austral ship had spent three days picking up abandoned gill nets on Banzare Bank—the spot where the Bob Barker had found the Thunder this year.
“I thought about how much more fish we’d be catching today if they hadn’t taken out so many, so I decided to write a short statement,” Paku said. “I don’t speak Spanish, but my chief engineer is from Chile, and he immediately recognised the Thunder skipper’s Chilean accent.”
“Fishing vessel Thunder, good morning,” read the engineer in Spanish. “This is fishing vessel Atlas Cove. This ship is a member of COLTO, the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators. We have taken position alongside the Sea Shepherd ships Bob Barker and Sam Simon to show support for their actions to stop all illegal fishing operations. Your ship is one of those that continue to fish illegally. Both governments and NGOs are determined to stop this illegal activity. The people behind you won’t let you go passively. Their reputation speaks for itself, and you, sir, are their target. They won’t stop until you stop. So do yourself a favour: go home and stay there. If you want to keep fishing in the Southern Ocean, then do it through the right channels like everybody else does and become a responsible and legal operator. And most importantly, help yourself become a responsible human being. We have to take care of the little that is left in the seas because if we don’t, there will be nothing left for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Over.”
The Thunder’s captain, Rubio Cataldo, went on the radio and plaintively asked no one in particular why he was being followed when he was doing nothing wrong. “He really didn’t like the lecture, especially from one of his countrymen. I could tell he was quite flustered,” Paku said.
Then the Thunder accelerated, turned sharply to starboard and made straight for the Atlas Cove. Hammarstedt saw the Atlas Cove belch a big plume of black smoke as Paku set full speed to starboard to avoid the charge of the Thunder.
Four hours after arriving, the Atlas Cove, support mission accomplished, turned around and resumed its southerly course towards Mauritius, its new home port.
THE THUNDER IS SILENCED
One night, the crew of the Bob Barker noticed the Thunder’s deck lights were on, with much activity around the stern.
“I worried they’d meet up with another ship the next day and get resupplied with food and fuel and offload their fish,” Hammarstedt said. “It gave me a lump in my stomach.”
On the morning of April 6, 80 nautical miles west of Sao Tomé, the Thunder stopped. Its crew donned life jackets and inflated three large orange life-rafts as the puzzled Bob Barker crew looked on. The weather was dead calm—there wasn’t even a swell—and the Thunder showed no sign of distress.
“So I radio the skipper and ask him, is everything OK?” Hammarstedt recalled. “He says he’s sinking. ‘Is this a distress situation?’ I ask. ‘Yes, this is a Mayday,” he says, and he’s perfectly calm. He asks me to put a small boat in the water to tow his life-rafts to our boat, and I agree.” But given the bad blood between the two crews, Hammarstedt figured the Sam Simon, which was three hours away, should be the one to pick up the Thunder’s crew and take them to land.
The crew got into the life-rafts, but Rubio Cataldo, the skipper, and four other officers stayed on board. As the Sam Simon appeared on the horizon, the officers finally got into the last life-raft.
Meanwhile, Hammarstedt assembled a boarding party on the Bob Barker. As the Thunder’s officers departed, the Bob Barker’s chief engineer and several others climbed into an inflatable, motored up to the listing Thunder and climbed aboard. Rubio Cataldo’s face fell.
“All the hatches and doors were latched open, exactly the opposite of what you’ll do if you want to maintain buoyancy,” Hammarstedt said. “The fish hold was pretty empty, they probably had less than 50 tonnes, 10 to 20 per cent of their capacity.” The boarding party noted that the relatively luxurious vessel was still in excellent condition. They returned with a frozen toothfish, Antarctic charts, mobile phones, a laptop and the Thunder’s registry. “Clearly, the skipper hadn’t planned on our boarding, or he wouldn’t have left so much stuff,” Hammarstedt said.
The Thunder’s stern went down first, and at noon, her bow, aimed at the perfect blue sky, backed down into the abyss 3800 metres below. Rubio Cataldo and several officers cheered, applauded and chanted, “ThunDER! ThunDER!” Hammarstedt is still not entirely sure why.
The Sam Simon picked up the 40 crew members and took them to Sao Tomé. Most were released, but Rubio Cataldo and his chief engineer and second mechanic, both Spanish, were put under house arrest and charged with counts of pollution, reckless driving, forgery and negligence, according to the authorities.
The long chase was over. Hammarstedt had pursued the Thunder for three months and 22 days and covered 11,533 nautical miles.
THE HAND OF FATE
From Sao Tomé, Hammarstedt took the Bob Barker to Ghana, where he disembarked and took a sabbatical after 13 years at sea with Sea Shepherd. He headed to Mindelo, in the Cape Verde Islands, off West Africa, where Sea Shepherd runs a turtle and shearwater protection project. As he was travelling by taxi to the airport there, Hammarstedt’s eyes swept across the bay and stopped at an oddly familiar ship that had just arrived. After a few seconds, he realised it must be one of the three belonging to the Vidal Armadores company that the Wellington had found in Antarctica and whose pictures he had studied in his binder before closing in on the Thunder. It was the Songhua, freshly renamed the Kadei. The next day, it was joined by the Yongding, sailing as the Luampa, both flagged to Sierra Leone. Hammarstedt alerted the authorities, which boarded and seized both ships. “It was a pure coincidence,” Hammarstedt explained. “We were expecting them in Southeast Asia.”
But it was a bittersweet victory: the fish holds were empty. Before dropping anchor, the ships had somehow unloaded their catch, estimated at 300 to 400 tonnes and worth perhaps NZ$9 million to NZ$12 million —enough to pay the crew and oil bills and even buy several more ships.
In addition to the Kunlun, detained in Thailand with 180 tonnes, two other members of the Bandit 6 were seized, in Malaysia: the Viking, the only one that had escaped detection during the whole campaign, and the Perlon, which had 330 tonnes of toothfish on board and which was also boarded and released by the Australians. The Viking’s hold was empty when it was arrested. It was released in May after its captain paid a fine. The Perlon is still being held, the fate of its cargo uncertain.
“Given the successes in disrupting these illegal fishing operations in the Southern Ocean this year, I would be very surprised if we see this level of illegal activity next year,” Noonan wrote in an e-mail. “I hope our efforts have broken the business model of these criminals once and for all.”
In Spain, the authorities raided the offices of Vidal Armadores and pressed criminal charges against 50 of its crew and employees. Maria Cornax, the Oceana fisheries director who has been working to defeat the Spanish toothfish pirates since she started working there as an intern a decade ago, said, “It really looks like strong sanctions against them will be finally taken, and that’s never happened before.”
“Hopefully,” said Martin Exel, chairman of COLTO, the legal toothfish fishers group, “finishing off the poachers will give people much more confidence that the toothfish on their plate has been caught sustainably.”