Commentary

Captain Peter Hammarstedt on the Origins of Operation Albacore

Monday, May 09, 2016

Captain Peter Hammarstedt writes about the origins of Operation Albacore: a long walk, a long chase and a new front in the fight to protect African wildlife. 

Captain Peter Hammarstedt inspects fishing trawler seized in Monrovia, Liberia in 2013. Photo Sea Shepherd Global
National Geographic Explorer in Residence Michael Fay on-board the M/Y Bob Barker in Libreville, Gabon. Photo Denis Sinyakov//Sea Shepherd.

As we headed north up the west coast of Africa, we ticked off countries one-by-one. Like the check-list of vessels that we set out to pursue on Operation Icefish, we crossed out countries as we speculated endlessly as to where the F/V Thunder would make port call. South Africa seemed unlikely. Germany and South Africa were in the middle of war games and several frigates were steaming off the Cape of Good Hope. Namibia...maybe? We knew the owner of the F/V Thunder to be Spanish and there were plenty of Spanish fishing interests operating out of Walvis Bay.

But we passed Namibia heading north, and then subsequently Angola and Congo, puzzled by the scheming of the F/V Thunder’s captain, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo; his dark intentions fuelled the imaginations of a Sea Shepherd crew that had now spent over one hundred days at sea. We traced our fingers along the coastlines marked on our charts, foreign shores that were as much mystery as a promise of an end to the relentless pursuit.

Suddenly the F/V Thunder changed course as if to make landfall. Heading deeper into the Gulf of Guinea, we raced to inform as many countries as possible that the F/V Thunder could be entering their waters in as little as 48 hours. Gabon was a possibility and replying to my alert was Mike Fay, an American conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence working out of Libreville, who answered by typing his response in the subject line of an e-mail – “I have informed people who should be able to act... keep me informed we will nab this guy”. The Gabonese Navy was willing to arrest the F/V Thunder if it entered Gabonese waters and as a result of that commitment, Fay and I began to discuss bringing a Sea Shepherd ship to Gabon.

Herd of elephants roaming inside Loango National Park, Gabon. Photo by Denis Sinyakov/Sea Shepherd.
Twenty year old shipwreck on the coast outside Port Gentil, Gabon. Photo by Denis Sinyakov/Sea Shepherd.

When Fay isn’t tracking elephants from his Cessna as part of a Gabonese National Park Service project gathering intelligence on ivory poaching operations, he flies over tuna boats. It’s not a strange transition to go from defending forest wildlife to protecting ocean creatures, given that even Gabon’s unique wildlife can’t seem to decide between living on land or at sea. Gabon’s Western lowland gorillas can be seen playing on beaches that mark proposed future marine reserves and its famous ‘surfing hippos’ literally swim out to sea just for the joy of body-surfing back to shore.

Gabon’s elephants, gorillas and hippos are iconic, but equally important to Gabon’s biodiversity is tuna and Gabon has some of the richest tuna waters in the world. Twenty percent of the declared catch of tuna in the Atlantic is caught in Gabonese waters – and that’s just what is reported.

Just weeks before the F/V Thunder sank, the Gabonese Navy had arrested two Chinese trawlers entering Gabonese waters from Congo. But like Sao Tome and Principe, Gabon lacked an offshore patrol vessel that could cover the full expanse of its sovereign waters. Thanks to the vision and leadership of Fay, the Gabonese Navy, the Gabonese Ministry of Fisheries, the Gabonese Fisheries Enforcement Agency, the Gabonese National Park Service and Sea Shepherd Global, Gabon now has a patrol vessel that is already infamous among poachers around the world.

It is impossible to know what Cataldo was thinking when he made he made the decision to sink his own ship. But I’m sure that he never imagined that his actions would serve as the springboard for Sea Shepherd to become a force against IUU fishing in the waters of Central West Africa. As countries around the African continent combat elephant poaching and other wildlife crimes, Gabon is now opening up another necessary front in the fight to protect African wildlife, one where success will be measured by seized fishing vessels rather than confiscated ivory tusks.

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Watch video "Operation Albacore: Africa's Eden" (below):

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