Will there be a day when the seafood on your plate has been certified as sustainable, toxin-free and exploitation-free and has been tracked from the time it was hooked to the time it is purchased? Will this information be verified by satellites from the sky that have cross-referenced errant transmissions and have correlated them with reports from an at-sea observer? Will every flag-state inspect the fishing vessels under their jurisdiction for compliance with international regulations to prove clean ownership, transparent operations and vessel seaworthiness? Will conservation, followed by technology and innovation be the prime motivators within the fishing industry thereby reducing wastage and promoting conservation?

Today we are a long way from being able to answer even one of these questions in the affirmative, exposing the vast divide between the principles of the conventions being ratified at the United Nations and the practicality in achieving their goals. Why it is so hard – if not impossible – to achieve a positive response to all those questions? The case of one particular fishing vessel provides some clues.

The Atlas Cove, Bob Barker and Sam Simon, in pursuit of the poaching vessel, Thunder. (Credit: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)

The Atlas Cove, Bob Barker and Sam Simon, in pursuit of the poaching vessel, Thunder. (Credit: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)

Fishing in the Southern Ocean is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), one of the seventeen Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) that regulate fishing in various ocean regions across the world. In short, the RFMO consists of interested member countries that flag and operate vessels that fish under the conditions of RFMO permits and report back to ensure a complete feedback system is in place.

In the late 1970s, a global market began to develop for Chilean Seabass and there was a rush to fish the rich waters of the Southern Ocean. By the mid-1990s, the illegal catch of Chilean Seabass outweighed those caught legally under CCAMLR, or under national jurisdiction. Strict actions were quickly taken under the CCAMLR to stamp out a bulk of the unsanctioned activity, but six vessels took advantage of legal loopholes and continued to illegally fish inside the controlled waters of the Southern Ocean.

The Thunder was one such vessel. She had largely employed some, or all, of the measures listed below to remain beyond the full reach of the current law:

  1. Using Flags of Non Compliance: Flagging ships to non-member countries and thereby attaining the status of “Unregulated.” The Thunder flew the flags of Togo, Mongolia, Seychelles, Belize and Nigeria, none of them members of the CCAMLR.
  2. Fishing in the high seas: Fishing in regions where no internationally binding laws apply and therefore acting outside the enforcement regime of the RFMO member-countries. Between 2006 and 2014, the Thunder was sighted a total of eighteen times. She was either fishing in or transiting through the high seas region of the CCAMLR management region.
  3. Calling ports with relaxed enforcement regimes: Landing catch at ports with very relaxed port state controls in South East Asia and Africa, thus ensuring that the vessels are not inspected when landing their catch, while at the same time accessing port facilities to refuel, re-stock and change crew. The Thunder called ports in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Mauritius over the years. She was inspected in Malaysia in 2013 and was found to have on board a cargo of illegally caught Patagonian toothfish. The captain and crew of the Thunder were fined $AU90,000 – only a fraction of the $US60 million that Interpol estimated that ship’s owners have earned from the vessel’s illegal catch since 2006. Having paid the fine, the crew and ship were later released along with their illegal catch, and they subsequently returned to the Southern Ocean.
  4. Employing additional techniques: Using the invisibility in the oceans to hide the true identity of the vessel by forging documents, hopping flags, changing names and operating under shell companies thereby hiding beneficial ownership. The Thunder swapped names between Rubin, Typhoon I, Kuko, Wuhan No. 4, Ming No. 5, and over the years changed ownership at least seven times.
The Sea Shepherd ships remain at a safe distance from the sinking poaching vessel, the Thunder. (Credit: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)

The Sea Shepherd ships remain at a safe distance from the sinking poaching vessel, the Thunder. (Credit: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)

Today the Thunder does not exist. She was found fishing illegally within the high seas of the Southern Ocean on December 17, 2014 by the marine conservation group, Sea Shepherd. Operating under the UN World Charter for Nature, Sea Shepherd is well known for its direct-action approach to conservation. With the mandate to uphold international conservation law, Sea Shepherd intervenes to stop environmental crimes that impact the marine environment, in situations where those responsible for law enforcement are unable to, or refuse to, uphold those laws.

Over the next 109 days, the Thunder remained on the high seas, traveling a distance of 10,000 nautical miles from the Southern Ocean to the Indian Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope to the South Atlantic Ocean, effectively remaining outside the reach of the world’s navies. She moved freely despite being subject to a Purple Notice by Interpol and a reputation for being the world’s most notorious poacher. In early April 2015, the vessel was deliberately sunk by her captain in the waters of São Tomé and Príncipe, a tiny West African island country.

The Thunder case study presents three distinct facts:

  1. Illegal vessels do not hide behind a shroud of secrecy. In fact they exist because they remain beyond the full reach of the law.
  2. The illegality within the fishing industry exists because of the maze of countries involved, most often with outdated legal instruments to keep pace with the current industry and a non-harmonization of regulations.
  3. A woeful lack of enforcement and in proactive patrols exists on the world’s oceans. During a recent address in Chile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sighted the case of the Thunder and commented that, “there are millions of square miles of oceans that are unregulated and that you have unscrupulous people who are chasing the money.” He further added, “The responsibility of pursuing pirate ships cannot be left to environmental groups,” highlighting a need for consensus on greater enforcement mechanisms.
Captains Sid Chakravarty and Peter Hammarstedt, in front of some of the 72 kilometers of illegal gillnet abandoned by the Thunder.

Captains Sid Chakravarty and Peter Hammarstedt, in front of some of the 72 kilometers of illegal gillnet abandoned by the Thunder.

The Thunder case study highlights the importance of at-sea patrols. To achieve true marine conservation, the world needs an ocean governed by laws that can be monitored and enforced. Until lofty principles can be practicably enforced and the questions posed at the beginning of this article be affirmatively answered, on-the-scene enforcement, which stops crimes as they are taking place, remains the most effective tool to target illegal activity on the world’s oceans. And while regulatory grey areas, a lack of resources, and a lack of government will continue to plague maritime law, leading to ineffective enforcement on the high seas, organisations such as Sea Shepherd will continue to play a vital role filling this law enforcement gap.

Consequences for non-compliance must be swift and binding, as it is not the scale of the punishment, but the certainty of it that acts as the biggest deterrent to crime. Currently, the vastness of the high seas and overlaps and gaps between regional and international jurisdictional responsibilities remain a challenge to marine law enforcement. However, recent moves towards international cooperation on fisheries crimes indicate that momentum is building to tackle the challenges, head-on.


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