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by Captain Peter Hammarstedt

Peter Interpol NoticePeter Hammarstedt holding the Interpol NoticeAs the three toothfish-poaching vessels belonging to Spain’s Vidal Armadores crime syndicate continue to sit in detention in Cabo Verde and Senegal, the Spanish Supreme Court has ruled that the owners -- who were charged with falsification of documents, money laundering, environmental crimes and criminal conspiracy -- cannot be prosecuted due to lack of jurisdiction. From the criminal case, the toothfish kingpins walk free.

In 2015 Sea Shepherd vessels chased the notorious F/V Thunder for 110 days and confiscated 72 kilometers of prohibited gillnet as part of Operation Icefish. Vidal vessels were intercepted and shut down at sea, and subsequently tracked down and detained by law enforcement in West African ports. 

The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, the Guardia Civil (Spanish Federal Police) and INTERPOL launched lightening raids of properties belonging to infamous Galician crime profiteers. Thousands of documents and computer files were seized, six arrests were made, and the Ministry of Agriculture successfully delivered a civil case that resulted in 17.8 million Euros in fines as well as a 25-year ban from fishing and receiving government fishing subsidies for Vidal Armadores. 

Parallel to the civil case, the Guardia Civil investigation -- professionally executed with the support of INTERPOL’s Project Scale, and acting on information provided by law enforcement in Australia and New Zealand, as well as by Sea Shepherd -- unraveled a complex criminal network estimated to have brought in illicit profits of up to 100 million Euros since 2006.

For many years, Spain has fallen under international scrutiny and criticism for not doing enough to stop the poaching of Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish. Two toothfish-poaching vessels, both with Spanish owners, had been the subject of INTERPOL Purple Notices for over a year before one of them was intercepted by Sea Shepherd off the coast of Antarctica, setting in motion the beginning of the end for what has been called the Galician Mafia.

OPERATION SPARROW, led by the Ministry of Agriculture, and OPERATION YUYUS, led by Guardia Civil, were instrumental in changing international perception of Spain as a haven for pirate fishermen.

That reputation now risks being muddied again, as the Spanish Supreme Court ruled, albeit with one dissenting judge, that it did not have the jurisdiction to rule on issues of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in High Seas areas, such as the Antarctic. Therefore, any crimes connected to IUU fishing could not be prosecuted either, as the money laundered was in the opinion of the Court not the profit of a crime under Spanish law.

Kunlun bow crossThe poaching vessel Kunlun crosses the bow of a Sea Shepherd shipThe dissenting magistrate concluded that the decision risks turning the ocean into a patchwork of “lawless towns”. This problem had already been recognized by the Spanish legislature when new laws took effect on the 1st of January 2015 making it a criminal offense for a Spanish national to be involved in IUU fishing irrespective of the flag state of the vessel that they are working on board. Sea Shepherd is confused why that would not extend to the Spanish nationals who owned and financed the fishing vessels, and then used them to break the law and profit greatly.

Alas, the Galician Mafia, weakened by the seizure of their ships, and the outstanding 17.8 million Euro fine, managed to slipped through a hole in a net that should have ended them.

The decision by the Spanish Supreme Court is as disappointing as the hard work of INTERPOL and Spanish law enforcement is inspiring. The ruling unfortunately sets the precedent that Spain is a safe place for criminals to organize and launder the theft of fish worth millions.

However, the monster that is the Galician Mafia is still severely wounded, and while it licks its wounds, it does so knowing that if they resume their toothfish poaching operations in the future, then they do so under the watchful eye of police -- who now understand their modus operandi better than ever before -- and a proven commitment by Sea Shepherd to shut them down on the High Seas that the Spanish Supreme Court has surrendered to poachers.  

The first shot has been fired across the bow of the Vidal Armadores crime syndicate, and both Sea Shepherd and international law enforcement are already readjusting sights for continued flak. Just as the American gangster Al Capone was finally brought down by one of his long list of crimes, so Vidal Armadores is living on borrowed time.

Operation Icefish 2015-16
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Operation Icefish 2015-16
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