One of the World’s Most Notorious Illegal Fishing Crews Is Fined $17 Million

Sea Shepherd’s dogged pursuit of the vessel Thunder has resulted in jail time, big penalties, and a breakthrough in how to catch ocean poachers.

In 2013, the Thunder became the subject of an Interpol 'purple notice' for suspected illegal fishing activity. (Photo: Simon Ager/Seashepherd.org)

Oct 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The environmental activist group Sea Shepherd’s epic 110-day, 10,000-nautical-mile ocean pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel has paid off.

The captain and two senior crew members of the fishing vessel Thunder were found guilty by a São Tomé and Príncipe court on Monday of multiple charges linked to illegal fishing, including forgery, pollution, and damage to the environment. São Tomé and Príncipe is an island nation that lies off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea.

The three men face between 32 and 36 months in jail and collectively have been fined more than $17 million, according to Sea Shepherd representatives and a prosecutor in the case, The New York Times reported.

The verdict is a huge victory for Sea Shepherd in the fight against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, an industry that costs more than $20 billion annually in lost catch, fishing jobs, and depletions of fish stocks worldwide.

In December 2014, the Thunder was considered one of the world’s most notorious illegal fishing vessels, blacklisted by international regulators and wanted for deploying illegal fishing nets in a protected region of the Southern Ocean to catch Patagonian toothfish—a species often sold as Chilean sea bass in high-end restaurants.

That’s when Sea Shepherd Captain Peter Hammarstedt and the crew aboard the 788-ton Bob Barker engaged the Nigerian-flagged Thunder in the longest recorded ocean pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel.

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Joining in on the action was the Sea Shepherd ship Sam Simon, which picked up 27 miles of discarded gill nets the Thunder crew abandoned when the chase started. Over the next four months, the boats trailed the vessel, waiting for the boat to head to port.

That kept the Thunder from being able to secretly offload its catch, said Sam Simon Captain Sid Chakravarty.

“As the days passed and the campaign progressed, there never really was a talk of giving up because every day we stayed with the Thunder was one day closer to her being shut down,” Chakravarty said in an interview.

On April 6, Sea Shepherd received a distress call from the Thunder, alerting it that the ship was sinking and asking for assistance. Hammarstedt and Chakravarty sprang into action, rescuing the crew and gathering evidence from the Thunder—including a frozen toothfish—before it sank off the west coast of Africa.

Chakravarty said he testified in court that he believed the crew disabled the boat on purpose to destroy evidence of its illegal activities and to protect the identities of the owners of the vessel.

“The sinking of the vessel was the surest way to sever the ties between the ownership and the crimes by exploiting the loopholes in international law,” Chakravarty said. “Had Sea Shepherd not been on the scene…the officers of the Thunder might well have got away without having to answer for the sinking.”

Instead, the captain and crew of the Thunder were taken aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessels and handed over to officials in São Tomé and Príncipe.

According to The New York Times, São Tomé and Príncipe’s attorney general found that the Nigerian company the ship was registered to did not exist, and the Chilean government had suspended the Thunder captain’s fishing license more than a year ago.

Evidence gathered by Sea Shepherd before the boat sank led Interpol to investigate companies in Spain, where the ship’s real owners are thought to be based.

“Although São Tomé and Príncipe lacked the jurisdiction to directly address the case of illegal fishing in the Antarctic, they showed the courage and willingness to still tackle it indirectly as seen with the charge of falsification of the fishing license,” Hammarstedt said in a statement. “In doing so, they have set an example to other nations around the world in the fight against the endemic issue of [illegal] fishing.”

As for Sea Shepherd, the organization believes it has established a blueprint for how to capture illegal fishing vessels, four of which the group has targeted since Interpol issued a “purple notice”—a request for information from the public regarding any criminal activities aboard the ships.

“The chase of the Thunder has proved that we have created a successful template needed to tackle the transnational nature of fisheries crimes, and we are fully committed to replicating our actions in the future,” Chakravarty said.