Commentary by Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson
110 Days – the longest hot pursuit of a poaching vessel in maritime history is finally over.
The Thunder – the most notorious of the Bandit Six – is no more. The ship now rests 4,000 meters down on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. 72 kilometers of the Thunder’s illegal gill net are onboard the Sam Simon. Two other poachers, the Kunlun and the Viking, have been detained – the Kunlun in Thailand and the Viking in Malaysia.
This has been the most successful intervention against high-seas poaching in the history of anti-poaching operations.
Captain Peter Hammarstedt of Sweden on the Bob Barker and Captain Sid Chakravarty of India on the Sam Simon and their crews have done an incredible job in this four-month odyssey that began with the Sam Simon in Wellington, New Zealand and the Bob Barker in Hobart, Tasmania. The ships have crossed the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope and up the South Atlantic to cross the equator on day 109 into the North Atlantic. The chase covered 10,260 nautical miles.
40 fishermen abandoned their sinking ship. Sea Shepherd crew collected the evidence of their illegal activities with a boarding party sent onto the Thunder. All 40 men were taken aboard the Sam Simon (30 Indonesian, seven Spanish, two Chilean and one Portuguese) and given food and blankets. There were no injuries sustained by the crews of any of the three ships. The Bob Barker escorted the Sam Simon to Sao Tome, where the Thunder crew were turned over to authorities.
No oil was observed after the sinking of the Thunder and there was very little fuel left onboard at the time of the sinking. All evidence gathered will be turned over to INTERPOL.
For over a decade the poachers have been fishing with impunity in the Southern Ocean. The last pursuit was in 2003, when the Australian Customs ship Southern Supporter chased the Uruguayan poacher VirasI for 21 days from Heard Island to the middle of the South Atlantic.
The poachers’ supremacy over the waters of the Southern Ocean ended this year.
Operation Icefish has focused attention on the illegal poaching of toothfish like never before, and has involved the authorities in New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Mauritius, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Spain and INTERPOL.
Nigeria stripped the Thunder of her registry and flag during the pursuit.
The crews on both the Sam Simon and the Bob Barker have carried out a marathon campaign that has ended in success.
Sea Shepherd holds no animosity to the crew of the Thunder. They were treated with kindness and consideration and fed vegan meals. Most if not all the Indonesian crew may be forced laborers; that is a situation that requires investigation. It is not for Sea Shepherd to decide the fate of these men; they will now be dealt with by the appropriate authorities.
The scuttling of the Thunder was a deliberate act of desperation by a crew that has been abandoned by their unscrupulous, wealthy owners, alleged to be fishing companies based in Galicia, Spain. Spanish police have already raided some of these companies in the search for evidence.
The net is being closed around these illegal operations, the source of the illegal Chilean Sea Bass presently being sold in restaurants and markets around the world. In addition, more and more exposure is being given to the virtual slavery involved in the crewing of these pirate-fishing operations.
Sea Shepherd, her captains, officers, crew, shore staff and volunteers have done an amazing job and have carved a place in maritime history. Many of the “experts” and politicians said that Sea Shepherd would not even find the poachers or would be unable to stop them. They even insinuated that Sea Shepherd would be charged with illegal fishing if the net was retrieved, or sued for damages by the companies backing the illegal vessels.
Sea Shepherd ignored the nay-sayers, found Thunder, located the Kunlun and Yongding and Songhua, confiscated the net, and chased the Thunder until it surrendered with the poachers’ dramatic scuttling of their own ship.
Aside from the Viking, detained in Malyasia, the other member of the Bandit 6 is the Perlon. Three of the six stopped, two detained and one sunk is a powerful blow to the operators of this cartel. The cargos of the Viking and the Kunlun have been detained and the cargo of the Thunder lost. Together this cargo could be worth between $6 million and $12 million in financial losses.
Sea Shepherd has intervened over the years against illegal fisheries worldwide. We have conducted campaigns to defend tuna, dolphins from tuna seiners, shark, cod, salmon, sea cucumbers, lobsters, bluefin tuna, and toothfish. These campaigns have not been easy but they have been effective. We were sued by a Maltese tuna company for freeing 800 illegally caught fish and we prevailed in court. The Costa Ricans are still pursuing me for defending sharks. The Canadian government took me to court for protecting cod but we prevailed in the Canadian courts in that case also. Our battles on the sea and in the courts have never been easy but as my old friend Al Johnson said in our early days, “Hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing this.”
Operation Icefish was not easy. The logistics of deploying two large ships on voyages each exceeding 10,000 miles and covering remote locations, extreme weather conditions, pulling in 72 kilometers of gill net, chasing poachers, debating politicians and bureaucrats, resupplying at sea, delivering evidence, rescuing fishermen and communicating to the media has been a challenge. However, the challenge was met without Sea Shepherd’s crew sustaining any injuries and without any injuries to the opposition. It could not have gone any better.
All in all it was an epic, historic campaign and I am immensely proud of what Sea Shepherd has accomplished with Operation Icefish.
Operation Icefish was a campaign of Relentless Passion, Persistence, Patience, Steadfastness, Seamanship, Success and Courage.