In 2007, most illegal toothfish vessels expanded their use of gillnet fishing methods, which are outlawed under CCAMLR regulations. Gillnets pose many threats. They are more effective than longlines, the level of incidental bycatch from gillnets is greater and lost or abandoned gillnets have the potential to continue to incur marine life mortality through ‘ghost fishing’.
As well as expanding their fishing methods, poachers shifted from traditional fishing areas to high seas areas, where there was less chance of detection by legitimate toothfish operators and law enforcement agencies. France, for example, has reported that in conjunction with a decrease of suspicious vessel activity in France’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ) around Isle Crozet, there has been an increase in vessel activity observed on the outer edges of the EEZ.
Illegal toothfish vessels are owned by shell companies and operate through a number of subsidiaries. Controlling interests are linked to a handful of Spanish-based fishing outfits, the most notorious of which is Vidal Armadores. The company is suspected in more than 40 cases of illegal fishing activity globally, from using banned fishing gearto targeting protected species of shark. However, Vidal Armadores’ notoriety has developed primarily due to its involvement in the illegal trade in toothfish.
In 2002, Vidal Armadores made international headlines when Australian authorities famously pursued the Viarsa 1 off of Subantarctic Heard Island. For 21 days, the Australia Customs vessel Southern Supporter chased the Viarsa 1 until it was finally brought back to Australia for trial. The Viarsa 1 was ultimately acquitted on lack of evidence because, although it was discovered in Australian waters, it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the fish was caught in Australian waters.
That same year U.S. officials seized an illegal shipment of Vidal Armadores toothfish. Manyof the company’s ships have ended up on international ‘blacklists’ and in 2006 Vidal Pego, one of the co-owners, was convicted of obstruction of justice in a United States federal court for unlawfully importing illegally caught toothfish into the United States.
The Chengdu, Nihewan and Chang Bai have all been sighted in recent years; all three vessels use prohibited gillnets and all are linked to Vidal Armadores. They were most recently flagged under Tanzania, but have a history of changing names and registries from Mongolia to Namibia to Sierra Leone. When vessels are flagged to countries that are not party to the CAMLR Convention, such as Tanzania, diplomatic efforts are insufficient in bringing the operators to justice.
The Thunder and Snake on the other hand, not linked to Vidal Armadores, were suspected of illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean and subsequently became the subject of International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) Purple Notices in 2013. (A Purple Notice is an international alert sent to all national law enforcement agencies to provide INTERPOL with information on modus operandi, procedures, objects, devices or hiding places used by criminals.)
Illegal toothfish operators often use vessels ill suited for Antarctic sea conditions to conduct their criminal operations. The result is the loss of not just the lives of fish, but of human life as well. After Sea Shepherd’s return from the 2013/14 Antarctic Whale Defence Campaign, Operation Relentless, while Australian authorities were busy scouring the South Indian Ocean for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) responded to an unrelated distress signal. Upon approaching the location of the emergency beacon, debris was visible, but there was no sign of either life rafts or crew in the water. The search was called off due to the low chances of survival in the Antarctic conditions and the Orion search and rescue plane was diverted back to looking for the missing aircraft.
The emergency beacon was later linked to the Tanzanian-flagged Tiantai refrigeration ship, but AMSA has still been unable to establish the owner of the vessel. The Tiantai was assumed to have been assisting illegal toothfish operators that would have used the vessel to offload their illicit catch. Due to the impossibility of establishing ownership, it is likely that the families of the vessel’s crew are still uncertain of the fate of the seafarers who died.
The Vidal Armadores linked vessel Nihewan, formerly named the Paloma V, is no stranger to Sea Shepherd. On Sea Shepherd’s 2009/10 Antarctic Whale Defence Campaign, Sea Shepherd confiscated an illegal gillnet set by the Paloma V.
When the Palmoa V later docked in Auckland, New Zealand, fisheries investigators found damning evidence that indicated the vessel was involved in a criminal network that enabled the transhipment of supplies between legal and illegal toothfish operators. This included proof that supplies were given from the Paloma V to the Chilbo San 33, a formerly North Korean-flagged blacklisted fishing vessel. Although the Paloma V was eventually released from custody because of concerns that a trial would be lengthy and costly, it has been spotted under other names and flags in the Antarctic since then, including Mongolian, Belizean and Cambodian flags of convenience.