For 10 years, Sea Shepherd had been pursuing the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic, high-profile campaigns that ultimately resulted in the government of Australia taking the government of Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The ICJ ruled that the Japanese whaling program was illegal and thus the Japanese whaling industry took a one-year hiatus from whaling as they re-worked their whaling program in bid to subvert the ICJ ruling. That one-year hiatus gave Sea Shepherd the opportunity to focus on a different Antarctic poaching issue altogether — namely the poaching of Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish. In the years of chasing Japanese whaling vessels, Sea Shepherd ships would often come across abandoned fishing gear in the Southern Ocean, but crews were unable to confiscate the nets as they were in hot pursuit of whalers.
On research it was discovered that the F/V Thunder, which had been poaching in the Southern Ocean for over a decade, had eluding law enforcement authorities by changing name, flag and registry constantly. Thus came the idea that as long as we physically pursued the F/V Thunder, then it would be impossible for them to change their identity. We would be able to provide law enforcement will real-time intelligence. There would be no excuse not to act.
When my crew and I first found the F/V Thunder, the notorious poacher was one of six vessels that we came to call the ‘Bandit Six’, which, despite the crackdown against toothfish poaching in the early 2000s, had continued to fish without a license — and to fish using prohibited fishing gear. The chase of the F/V Thunder was great at galvanizing government action against the other five bandits: Indonesia detained and sank the F/V Viking while the others were detained in Cabo Verde, Senegal and Malaysia. Within two years of the F/V Thunder chase, all of the ‘Bandit Six’ had been brought to justice.
In the wake of the ‘Bandit Six’, two toothfish poaching vessels have taken up the helm, one of which was arrested in Indonesia just the other week. We have almost succeeded in shutting down illegal fishing in the Antarctic.
The hairiest moments for me are always those that involve ice and storms. Although there was danger involved in chasing the F/V Thunder, the greatest dangers are brought by the weather systems that plague the Southern Ocean. However, the most nerve-wracking part of the chase was the uncertainty. Not knowing how, or when, the pursuit would end … that was the most psychologically-challenging, especially considering we had the fuel to stay at sea for over two years. On board the M/Y Bob Barker, we would speculate endlessly regarding possible conclusions and some of those potential scenarios involved our own ship being detained and arrested, perhaps by a corrupt state actor, or other criminal vessels coming to the aid of the F/V Thunder. As the book Catching Thunder shows, for much of the chase, we were a long way from rescue.
Thankfully governments are now doing more to stop illegal fishing and that is undoubtedly thanks to leadership by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Norway. All five of those countries have been instrumental in pushing for illegal fishing to be treated as transnational organized crime.
However, more and more, authorities are also pursuing owners and operators for the convergence crimes that accompany the fisheries offence. In other words, police authorities now pursue the additional charges that make the fisheries offence possible — from corruption to money laundering to forgery to human trafficking. For the first time, illegal fishing is being seen as part of a broader maritime security issue, a criminal operation that threatens the rule of law and the livelihoods of local artisanal fishermen.
Challenges remain however. The transnational nature of IUU fishing, means that regional and global cooperation in the fight to stop IUU fishing needs to be expanded. Law enforcers need more legal tools to pursue criminal operators. And developing countries with the political will to stop illegal fishing, need the support of civil society, like Sea Shepherd, to assist them in taking their seas back from poachers.
When I was 14-years-old, I saw a photograph of a whale being pulled up the slipway of an 8,000 tonne factory whaling ship plying the Antarctic. I knew then that I wanted to be one of the people who gets between the whales and the whalers pursuing them. When I was 18, Iceland, after taking a 15-year hiatus from whaling, applied to rejoin the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in order to start commercial whaling under the guise of scientific whaling, a loophole within the 1986 Moratorium on Commercial Whaling that allows for whaling to continue. Iceland became a member of the IWC in a vote of 19-to-18, and it was my native-country of Sweden that cast the deciding vote. Surprisingly, Sweden had voted incorrectly and within minutes of voting, asked for a re-vote; but the protocols of the IWC did not allow for a do-over: a vote cast was a vote cast.
In consequence, I lost a lot of faith in ‘the system’. Sea Shepherd appealed to me because Captain Paul Watson and the organization delivered direct results. In the wake of the IWC vote, and Iceland’s re-ascendancy as a whaling nation, Sea Shepherd was planning to directly intervene in the slaughter. I submitted a crew application just months later, I was aboard my first Sea Shepherd ship.
Overfishing and plastic pollution are two of the most pressing emergencies facing our oceans today.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the world’s fisheries are fully-exploited and 26% are overexploited, meaning that just 10% of the world’s fisheries are healthy. When 15-40% of the global catch of fish is caught through IUU fishing, then combating IUU fishing is critical to stopping overfishing.
Since the chase of the F/V Thunder, Sea Shepherd has signed ‘ship rider’ agreements with the countries of Gabon, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe and Tanzania, providing civilian offshore patrol vessels, an operating crew and fuel for patrols. Our government partners station law enforcement agents on board the vessel, with the authority to board, inspect and arrest IUU fishing vessels.
With 90% of the world’s fish caught in the sovereign waters of countries, we are prioritizing working with countries with the political will to combat IUU fishing, but whose economic resources are stretched to the point that they cannot cover the entirety of their waters using existing assets. Since catching the Thunder, over 23 fishing vessels have been arrested for fisheries crimes, thanks to these unique partnerships. The chase continues.
The patrols are only possible thanks to donations from the public: www.seashepherdglobal.org