If you look at the taxonomy of crime that plays out offshore, it’s both diverse and acute. And yet illegal fishing sits at the top of that hierarchy. It’s a global business estimated at $10 billion in annual sales, and one that is thriving, as improved technology has enabled fishing vessels to plunder the oceans with greater efficiency.
The Thunder flourished in this context. Interpol had issued a Purple Notice on the ship, the equivalent of adding it to a most wanted list, a designation given to only four other ships in the world up to that time. The vessel had collected over $76 million from the illicit sales of seafood in the past decade, more than any other ship, according to Interpol estimates.
Banned since 2006 from fishing in the Antarctic, the Thunder had been spotted there repeatedly in the years that followed. In 2015, that’s where the environmental organization Sea Shepherd found it. Speaking through a translator, Peter Hammarstedt, captain of the Bob Barker, warned that the Thunder was banned from fishing in those waters and would be stopped.
It was the beginning of an extraordinary chase and the subject of the second episode of “The Outlaw Ocean” podcast, from CBC Podcasts and the L.A. Times. Listen to it here:
For 110 days and more than 10,000 nautical miles spanning two seas and three oceans, the Bob Barker and a companion ship, both operated by Sea Shepherd, trailed behind the trawler, with the three captains close enough to watch one another’s cigarette breaks and on-deck workout routines. In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.
As chronicled by the Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization whose reporter was on board the Bob Barker, the chase ended with a distress call from the Thunder. “We’re sinking,” the Thunder’s captain pleaded over the radio. The ships operated by Sea Shepherd rescued the crew and tried gathering evidence of its crimes before the ship sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Taken to the nearest port officials in São Tomé and Príncipe, the Thunder’s senior crew members were arrested. Three officers were charged with a variety of counts, including pollution, negligence and forgery. But losing the ship — and the evidence that went down with it, including the fish in the hold, onboard computers, various records and fishing equipment — makes prosecution more difficult, Interpol and Sea Shepherd officials acknowledged.
The second episode of “The Outlaw Ocean” podcast also focuses on another notorious case related to illegal fishing that happened on the seas off the coast of North Korea, where battered wooden “ghost boats” drifted through the Sea of Japan for months, their only cargo the corpses of starved North Korean fishermen whose bodies had been reduced to skeletons.
For years the grisly phenomenon mystified Japanese police, whose best guess was that climate change pushed the squid population farther from North Korea, driving the country’s desperate fishermen to dangerous distances from shore, where they became stranded and died from exposure.
But an investigation conducted by the Outlaw Ocean Project, based on satellite data, revealed what marine researchers now say is a more likely explanation: that China was sending a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing smaller North Korean boats and spearheading a decline in once-abundant squid stocks of more than 70%.
The Chinese vessels — nearly 800 in 2019 — were there in violation of U.N. sanctions that forbid foreign fishing in North Korean waters. The sanctions, imposed in 2017 in response to the country’s nuclear tests, were intended to punish North Korea by not allowing it to sell fishing rights in its waters in exchange for valuable foreign currency.
The episode surfaces what experts have called the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single industrial fleet operating in another nation’s water.
(Ian Urbina is the director of the Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea globally.)