Sea Shepherd hunts Interpol-wanted poacher that escaped Phuket

PHUKET: The hunt is back on for the internationally black-listed illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing vessel that slipped through the fingers of Phuket officials earlier this year, confirmed Captain Siddharth Chakravarty of the Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin.

“The summer fishing season for toothfish starts now, so we have launched this campaign before the Kunlun can do further damage,” Capt Chakravarty told the Phuket Gazette this morning.

The ship, which had recently changed its name from Kunlun to Taishan, was apprehended in Phuket after it falsely reported offloading 182 tonnes of illegally caught Patagonian toothfish, valued at 179 million baht, as 182 tonnes of grouper, valued at just 15mn baht (story here). However, after months of detention, the ship was able to flee the port it was moored at in Phuket (story here).

“Finding a vessel such as the Kunlun, once it had escaped, was like finding a needle in a haystack. Even with modern satellite technology and intelligence sharing, there remain enough avenues for such repeat offenders to disappear,” Capt Chakravarty said. “Thailand took the first step and that was to arrest the vessel, detain her in port and aid the investigations into the vessel’s operations.”

“More can and must be done, but the responsibility must be shared by all countries involved, including those that consume the fish, and not left to be borne by the trading countries alone.”

Three Phuket Customs Officials were transferred out of the province following the ship’s escape in September.

“The Phuket Customs chief and two other officers were transferred to Bangkok,” explained Charoen Chamniklang from the Thai Customs Investigation and Suppression Bureau (ISB). “They allowed the ship to re-fuel, as it needed to keep all 182 tons of toothfish on board frozen. Once completely re-fueled, the Kunlun managed to escape.”

Other than levying a fine for falsely reporting the toothfish as grouper, officials had no authority to keep their cargo, explained Mr Charoen.

“The ship had already been through all the legal formalities at the Customs Office. However, the Phuket Marine Office was still investigating it for issues with its registration,” Mr Charoen explained.

Since 2008, the boat has changed its name at least 10 times, according to a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society report.

Following the unprecedented success of Operation Icefish earlier this year, Sea Shepherd today announced its second campaign to target illegal Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish operators in the Southern Ocean.

At the conclusion of the last campaign, five of the six known illegal toothfish poaching vessels had been detained. The sixth and most notorious, Thunder, was scuttled in waters surrounding Sao Tome and Principe following a 110-day pursuit by the Sea Shepherd ship, Bob Barker. Sea Shepherd believes that the ship was scuttled in an attempt to destroy evidence of the Thunder‘s illegal fishing operations.

Sea Shepherd has continued to monitor the movements of the remaining illegal vessels throughout the year. This year’s campaign will focus on bringing Interpol-wanted poachers Viking and Taishan to justice.

“Sea Shepherd’s sole aim is to provide a parallel policing presence on the oceans. As the case of Thunder proved, we can intercept, chase, investigate and aid prosecutions to end criminality in its entirety. It is a disappointment that the Kunlun [Taishan] escaped from the clutches of law enforcement, but it also proves just how effective at-sea patrols are and why campaigns such as Operation Icefish are necessary,” Capt Chakravarty told the Gazette.

Led by Capt Chakravarty, Sea Shepherd will once again focus its attention on defending the pristine waters of Antarctica, with the aim to eliminate illegal fishing of vulnerable toothfish from the region.

Top predators in the waters of the Southern Ocean, toothfish are a unique, long-lived species that are particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to their slowness to reach sexual maturity and high market value. Though only limited scientific information exists on the fish, it has been shown that illegal fishing has had a devastating impact on populations, leading to collapse and closure of some fishing areas.

The flagship of the Sea Shepherd fleet, the Steve Irwin, will depart from Melbourne, Australia in December to patrol the ‘shadowlands’ of the Southern Ocean. The ‘shadowlands’ is an area outside of national jurisdiction with limited legitimate vessel traffic, where the risk of detection of fishing crimes by law enforcement authorities is minimal, explained Sea Shepherd.

The Sea Shepherd crews will employ direct-action techniques to fill a law enforcement void that continues to be exploited by the remaining illegal toothfish vessels, the group explained.

Despite the commitment shown by Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to prevent operators of ships such as the Taishan from illegally using their ports, Capt Chakravarty was unable to rule out that South East Asia would not be re-visited by toothfish poachers when it came to unloading their cargo.

“The applicability of international fishing violations remains limited in these countries,” said Captain Chakravarty.

“The oceans are in peril and our actions remain the only pro-active and definite policing presence to tackle illegality. We intend to embrace the responsibility with courage and fortitude, and once again locate, investigate and shut down the most notorious poachers on this planet.”

— Isaac Stone Simonelli

Phuket News

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