Operation Icefish 2014-15 began with a checklist of six illegal toothfish operators known to be poaching vulnerable populations of Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean. These six vessels, which Sea Shepherd named the "Bandit Six", had been operating with impunity for more than 10 years, able to avoid detection and arrest by frequently changing name and registry; and by exploiting the remoteness of the Southern Ocean "shadowlands" where monitoring and surveillance is difficult.
At the beginning of December 2014, the Bob Barker and Sam Simon set sail from Australia and New Zealand, respectively, to locate these elusive pirates and to assist law enforcement authorities in finally bringing legal action against them. Once found, the Bob Barker would follow the poacher wherever they went, reporting on their position to the police, and preventing them from setting their illegal fishing gear. The Sea Shepherd ship would then physically escort the poacher into port for arrest, ensuring that there would be no opportunity for them to change name, change flag or evade justice.
Meanwhile the Sam Simon would confiscate any illegal fishing gear, preventing further poaching, depriving illicit profits and providing physical evidence for prosecution.
On the 17th of December 2014 the most notorious of the Bandit Six, the Thunder, emerged out of the fog and onto the Bob Barker's radar, with sea birds circling over a wake of offal. Sets of orange buoys littered the field of icebergs, abandoned by the infamous gillnetter as it attempted to flee. Through heavy ice conditions and stormy weather, the poacher tried to lose the tailing Bob Barker, which was reporting on the Thunder's position to international law enforcement twice daily and documenting its every move. The international criminal police organization, Interpol, which one year earlier had issued a Purple Notice (an official request for information) for the blacklisted vessel, estimated that the Thunder had made a profit of over 60 million dollars over the past decade. Now the hunter had, at last, become the hunted.
As the Bob Barker gave chase, biting at the heels of the northward-bound Thunder, the Sam Simon, under the command of Captain Siddharth Chakravarty, arrived at the scene of the crime to confiscate the banned fishing gear abandoned by the poachers.
Working 24 hours a day over a four-week period, the Sam Simon crew confiscated a record 72,000 meters of gillnet, pulling these "curtains of death" out of the sea and freeing any entangled wildlife.
Fifty days into the chase in the warmer waters of the South Indian Ocean, the Thunder attempted to resume its illegal fishing activity. In reckless pursuit of its catch, the poaching vessel steered a hazardous course, crossing within half a meter of the bow of the Bob Barker.
A near collision was avoided thanks to quick action by the Bob Barker crew who threw the engines astern, steering the Sea Shepherd ship out of harm’s way. The Sea Shepherd crew then successfully blocked the poacher's attempts to fish, seizing more illegal fishing gear in the process, and ensuring that the Thunder’s relapse into poaching was short-lived. The Thunder would not fish again.
After confiscating the Thunder’s abandoned gillnets, the Sam Simon would soon intercept its own prized catch – another two of the Bandit 6.
Named Kunlun and Yongding, the two poachers, owned by Spanish family crime syndicate Vidal Armadores, had previously been located by the New Zealand Navy. However, attempts by the Navy to board the vessels had failed due to limitations posed by rough weather. Shortly after being intercepted by Sea Shepherd, the poachers split up to flee in different directions. The Sam Simon took up chase of the Kunlun, maintaining continuous pursuit of the vessel, eventually physically escorting it out of Australian waters.
One month later, the Kunlun was arrested, having run all of the way to Thailand, its catch seized by Thai Customs. Not long after, the Viking, another of the Bandit 6 vessels, joined the Kunlun in police custody, this time in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Thunder headed for the equatorial waters of the Gulf of Guinea. Although the deck officers were believed to be Spanish criminals, concern was mounting over the welfare of the Indonesian fishers on board. A growing body of evidence was indicating that they were victims of human trafficking. The Thunder, it is believed, was not only exploiting vulnerable toothfish populations, but also some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Sea Shepherd decided to attempt to communicate with the Indonesian crewmen via printed messages thrown aboard the Thunder in plastic bottles, to enquire about their safety, welfare and working conditions. During the attempt, one of the officers of the Thunder, his face hidden behind a balaclava, threw chain and other metal objects at Sea Shepherd small boat crewmen, striking the on board photographer.
The sun would eventually set on the Thunder as it sank under mysterious circumstances on the 6th of April 2015 off the coast of the small island state of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea. In a strange twist of fate, that day, the pursuer became the rescuer when the Sea Shepherd ships rescued all forty crew of the sinking vessel.
Before it sank, three Bob Barker crewmembers boarded the listing Thunder. They were able to document signs that the Thunder had been deliberately sunk – watertight doors and hatches opposed to shut to maintain buoyancy. A frozen toothfish was also confiscated from the fishhold before the ship sank below the surface of the water.
The chase of the Thunder spanned three oceans and set a new world record for the longest maritime pursuit in modern history. Now, the Thunder is resting at a depth of 3,800 meters and will never poach again. The crew was handed over to authorities in São Tomé and Príncipe.
The Kunlun and Viking were detained in Southeast Asia and the Songhua and Yongding detained in Cabo Verde, off West Africa, after Captain Peter Hammarstedt sighted the Songhua and alerted authorities.
In June, the Spanish government announced that it had issued fines that could reach up to €11 million to Spanish nationals and companies involved in IUU fishing in the Southern Ocean. They are the highest known fines imposed by a European Union government, and are the first penalties that target the operators behind the Bandit 6.
Then on July 3, following a three-month investigation, the Captain, Chief Engineer, and Second Mechanic of the Thunder, were charged with counts of pollution, reckless driving, forgery and negligence in São Tomé and Príncipe. On October 12, the three were found guilty and sentenced to between 32 and 36 months jail, and ordered to pay a €15 million fine.
The successes of Operation Icefish in highlighting the problem of illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean, in bringing poachers to justice, and in inspiring international law enforcement action, has defied all expectations.
Making Conservation History
Operation Icefish was the first campaign of its kind. In its four-and-a-half month duration, the Bob Barker engaged in a world record-breaking pursuit of the Thunder taking them across the Southern, Indian and Atlantic Ocean.
The Sam Simon also made history by retrieving thousands of meters of illegally set gillnets from the pristine waters of Antarctica.
Operation Icefish is the longest and one of the most successful campaigns in Sea Shepherd history.
- Total number of days chasing the Thunder: 110 (The previous record for chasing a poaching vessel was held by the Australian patrol vessel, Southern Supporter, which pursued the Uruguayan vessel, Viarsa 1, for 21 days in 2003)
- Total length of illegal gillnets retrieved: 72 km (The largest seizure of illegal fishing gear from the Southern Ocean)
- Total number of toothfish retrieved from gillnets: 1,081
- Estimated value of catch in gillnets: $2.7 - 3.1 million (USD)
- Consecutive days at sea (Bob Barker): 146
- Distance covered by the Bob Barker: 19,540 miles (4,500 miles less than the circumference of the earth)
- Total number of days drifting: 23 (longest single drift: 11 days)
Operation Icefish has seen an unprecedented level of cooperation by Sea Shepherd with various local police, Coast Guard personnel, Scene of Crime officers, Mauritian Fisheries officers, as well as other local and Interpol officials to tackle the issue of toothfish poaching.
Operation Icefish provides an effective model for how international marine enforcement agencies can address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the future.
Shining a light into the shadowlands
Around the world, the health of our oceans is in serious and rapid decline. The shadowlands of the Southern Ocean now contain some of the last pristine marine ecosystems on the planet. These unexploited waters, combined with a lack of law enforcement in the region, make them a virtual gold mine for poachers seeking to heap millions from toothfish they catch in highly destructive gillnets (also known as ‘walls of death’). This maps show where the Sea Shepherd ship, Sam Simon located gillnets illegally set within the CCAMLR region by the Thunder over the 2014 Austral summer.
The Outlaw Ocean
On July 25, 2015 the esteemed newspaper, The New York Times, published the front-page story “The Longest Chase”; the final part of a four part series on lawlessness on the high seas. The article follows the Bob Barker and Sam Simon, during Operation Icefish, focusing on the chase of the Thunder and the confiscation of the thousands of kilometers of illegal gillnet abandoned by the poaching vessel.
With a circulation of over 1 million, and even more readers online, the article was the pinnacle of a flood of media coverage that followed the sinking of the Thunder. With the world’s attention now clearly focused on the issue of illegal fishing on the high seas, never has there been a more opportune time to tackle this global issue, head-on. ‘The Outlaw Ocean’ by Ian Urbina can be read online at: www.nytimes.com/oceans