by Captain Peter Hammarstedt
After hours of searching through the fishing trawler, the Liberian Coast Guard Lieutenant asked the Senegalese fishing master a question that he already knew the answer to:
- Did you transship in Liberian waters?
- No. Never, never. Never Liberia.
- So where did you take on the 40 ton of shrimp?
- Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast.
With the admission of transshipment in the waters of Cote d’Ivoire, a practice strictly banned recorded on tape, the Lieutenant instructed the Portuguese captain to set course for Monrovia for further investigation.
Thus ended the boarding and inspection of the Fishing Vessel (FV) Hispasen 7, the first vessel to be arrested during a three-week covert operation between Sea Shepherd Global and the Ministry of National Defense in Liberia, led by the Minister of National Defense, the Hon. Brownie Samukai.
When the FV Hispasen 7 crossed into Liberian waters from Cote d’Ivoire, they had already ‘gone black’ one month earlier, later claiming that a “lightning strike” had knocked out their Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). The lightning strike coincided with when they left the port of Abidjan to commence fishing. The FV Hispasen 7 was an unlucky ship.
Unbeknownst to the FV Hispasen 7, they were painted on the MY Bob Barker's RADAR by the Liberian Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd as soon as they entered Liberian waters. The joint operation began to shadow them at a distance. As soon as the vessel entered the territorial sea limit of Liberia, the decision was made to board.
The FV Hispasen 7 did not reply to repeated attempts to hail them on the radio, but when the captain saw the ten armed sailors with the Liberian Coast Guard in a Sea Shepherd small boat alongside them, he immediately lowered a pilot boarding ladder. We rushed to the bridge where the captain could be seen pouring over his electronic logs, potentially deleting data. As we piled into the wheelhouse, the captain was immediately ordered to step away from his GPS logger and told that he was suspected of illegal fishing activity.
It was then that the captain began to moan about the lightning strike and a month of fishing with meagre takings.
The vessel documents that were presented were sparse. None were originals. The fishing log book was a simple spiral notebook with pages torn out of it. A fishing license was presented for Cote d’Ivoire.
Among the papers were two stapled sheets of plain white printer paper. At the top of the page was written the words ‘Soraya I’, presumably the name of a vessel, and a handwritten list of fish species including 1,679 containers of shrimp. There was no letterhead, no signature and no stamp but this was presented as evidence of transshipment in the absence of any cargo manifest.
Transshipment of fish at sea is prohibited in Cote d’Ivoire because it makes it difficult for controllers to determine the origin of the fish, a fact exploited by those trying to launder their illicit catch.
An icy mist lifted from the darkness of the fish hold as Ghanaian fishermen in tattered shorts and rubber boots moved the heavy hatch aside. The light of my flashlight bounced off boxes of shrimp in a hold that was not even halfway full.
The Lieutenant turned to the Fishing Master:
- Where are you going with this catch?
- To Senegal.
- But why would you go to Senegal if your holds are not yet full?
- It’s been bad fishing.
The fishermen, who came from a number of different countries, sat and waited on the main deck of the FV Hispasen 7, as the inspection continued. Three of them were undocumented. The master could not present evidence of their contracts. I can’t recall if it was one of the undocumented fishermen who had opened the fish hold.
Back on the bridge, the Lieutenant had counted 26 violations, including the recorded admission of transshipment, and placed the vessel under arrest, leaving 5 Liberian Coast Guard sailors on board to bring the ship back to Monrovia as we disembarked.
As the Hispasen 7 began to make way for Monrovia, the master of the fishing vessel was convinced that the Coast Guard had come from shore. The MY Bob Barker remained hidden from view, just over the horizon, watching from the shadows.
As we climbed back aboard the MY Bob Barker, the deck crew worked to recover the small boats in darkness guided only by their headlamps.
It was day two of our patrols and the first arrest had been made. Operation Sola Stella had begun.