10,000 Miles on the Trail of The World’s Most Wanted Fishing Vessel and the Laughable Response of the Maritime Industry to The New York Times’ Devastating Reporting.

by Owen James Burke


Above: One of Sea Shepherd’s vessels limping through the tortured waters of the Southern Ocean somewhere south of Cape Town, South Africa. Screenshot: Animal Planet/Sea Shepherd Global, Selase Kove-Seyram for The New York Times.

The last segment of The New York Times’ “The Outlaw Ocean” series came out this week. This fourth and final installment, titled “A Renegade Trawler Hunted for 10,000 Miles by Vigilantes,” details the story of two Sea Shepherd ships which tailed one of the world’s most wanted illegal fishing vessels for over 10,000 miles – because not one national government or international maritime organization would bother to pursue the rogue vessel.

Over 111 days, the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, vessels named after the T.V. game show host and “The Simpsons” creator (both investors)–followed the Nigerian-registered, Norwegian-built seine netter Thunder through the “furious fifties” and the “roaring forties,” latitudes where winds and waves are almost continuously in excess of 40 knots and 40 feet.

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A Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean sea bass from one of The Thunder’s 45-mile-long illegal nets which Sea Shepherd seized. (Ed’s note: Sea Shepherd’s seizure of the net was illegal, according to some maritime lawyers, but chances of prosecution are very low in the wake of The Thunder’s illegal activities.) Photo: Jeff Wirth/Sea Shepherd Global.

The Thunder was a 202-foot steel-sided ship wanted by INTERPOL and MARPOL for their illegal overfishing of Patagonian toothfish (or as they’re known in U.S. restaurants, ‘Chilean sea bass’), excessive pollution and evasion of taxes. After a chase that began in a remote patch of the Southern Ocean and extended over 10,200 nautical miles, it is believed that the captain and crew scuttled the Thunder off East Africa in an attempt to destroy the reams of evidence against them that was onboard.


Above: The Thunder sinks rapidly after the captain of the vessel, a 48-year-old Chilean man, reported a collision, but it’s possible (and seems far more likely) that she was intentionally scuttled. Sea Shepherd made the dangerous but humane decision to rescue the crew and bring them to the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, where they met with local and INTERPOL authorities. Screenshot: Animal Planet/Sea Shepherd Global, Selase Kove-Seyram for The New York Times.

After publication of the articles, the commercial maritime industry is incensed, not at itself, but rather Sea Shepherd, The Times, and the so-called regulatory bodies said to be policing the high seas.

In spontaneous response during the above interview with Maritime TV, Clay Maitland, Managing Partner of International Registries, Inc. and Founding Chairman of NAMEPA, the North American Maritime Environment Protection Agency (NAMEPA), went on the defensive and bluntly rebutted, stating with what seemed like remarkably arrogant Eurocentricity, “We’re the cleanest and safest transportation mode in the world. We’re also the least expensive. But we certainly are not a bunch of crooks, nor do we run ships that pollute.”

One must wonder whether he’s aware of the low-grade petroleum sludge which propels the ships that operate through his registry, or still yet, a zany new invention some of us call the sailboat.

I’m getting on a tangent here, but, then, so is he. Nowhere in any of the four New York Times articles is the maritime industry as a whole accused of running illegal operations. These are four separate and isolated incidents, and nowhere does the author, Ian Urbina, say or even imply differently.

What these four dexterously and perilously reported articles do get at is acknowledgement that these “egregious crimes are routinely committed with impunity” on the high seas. Perhaps these instances don’t occur on most vessels. (Though who’s to say? Certainly not a couple of desk-bound executives who’ve never spent time in the hold of an illegal slave fishing trawler.) But these situations Urbina reported on happened. To dismiss his incredible reporting as, and I quote, “erroneous,”  sounds like a bunch of tobacco industry officials defending cigarettes, or 19th century plantation owners defending the south’s ‘peculiar institution.’

Shouldn’t these PR-speaking representatives of the maritime industry instead strive to have these captains and ship owners prosecuted, so as to rid their industry of its scourge-laden underbelly?

Really, each of Urbina’s four articles is a distinct call to action for the maritime industry to take action to clean up its act and for the captains of other vessels to report these crimes. They are a call to governing bodies to defend and regulate the policies they put in place behind closed doors and to create new policies that actually work. They are a call to the consumer to make educated decisions based on global stewardship by not purchasing commodities caught or produced by illegal fishing or slavery-this is where it comes down to we, the people.

And what can the public do? At the most basic level, every time we go to the register counter, we are voting on whether to continue these sorts of practices. Did you know, for example, that for every pound of tuna ‘produced’ in a fish farm, or pen, 20 pounds of forage fish is consumed. The irony? Those forage fish–which before the bluefin tuna sashimi craze trickled west, were a staple diet for western civilization–are infinitely healthier for you than mercury-rich and perhaps even plastic- and cancer-riddled bluefin tuna (read more on that here). This means you can choose to eat locally-sourced, non-farmed fish, and feed your cat or dog the same way. You can also download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s amazing sustainable seafood app Seafood Watch.

Read parts I, II, III and IV of “The Outlaw Ocean” on The New York Times in which Ian Urbina examines the wild west-style lawlessness, violence and crimes that frequently take place with impunity on the high seas in international waters. -OJB

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