The recent release of a White House action plan on illegal, under-reported, unregulated fishing sets out the need to address this global challenge before it’s too late. The total value of economic losses from IUU fishing is estimated to range from $10 billion to $23.5bn annually.
The end last week of the longest pursuit of a poacher in maritime history, surpassing the 21-day pursuit of a Uruguayan poacher in 2003 by an Australian Customs vessel, underscored the need for international co-operative action against IUU fishing.
A sinking boat is a sad day for any mariner. But this was a scuttled boat, infamous for all the wrong reasons. The bow belonged to The Thunder, one of the most notorious IUU boats that had been fishing for toothfish in the Southern Ocean for nearly two decades.
The Thunder was pursued for 110 days by the Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker. (Unlike its total opposition to whaling, Sea Shepherd doesn’t oppose the regulated legal toothfish industry in the Southern Ocean).
It was chased from the time it was sighted fishing in waters off the Antarctic continent: around icebergs, through ice, snow, sleet, rain and hail, across some of the roughest waters in the world, and half way around the African continent.
On April 7 The Thunder was sunk, apparently by its skipper, in the waters off Sao Tome, an attempt to eliminate evidence of its recent foray into illegal fishing for toothfish. Sea Shepherd rescued the crew members of the sinking boat. The Thunder had changed states of registry regularly in a clear attempt to avoid prosecution. The constant flag-changing, and movement of the corporate veils behind the beneficial ownership, prevented any national agency being able to prosecute The Thunder or its owners for IUU fishing.
Increased scrutiny by Interpol, with Norway playing a very strong role, placed pressure on previous flag states of convenience not to support the operations of The Thunder.
National agencies from a range of states — including Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain and Britain — worked behind the scenes to gather evidence of beneficial ownership of companies involved in illegal toothfish fishing. Legal toothfish operators and conservation groups had worked together in recent years to focus attention on these issues.
The skipper of The Thunder is likely to face prosecution for illegal fishing in his home nation, Chile.
Additionally, if the beneficial ownership of The Thunder is shown to be held by a company or person from a member nation of the fisheries regulatory body, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), that company or person may be prosecuted for illegal fishing.
The sinking of The Thunder removes one of the last vestiges of IUU toothfish operations in the Southern Ocean.
The case highlights the need for international law to close the loopholes around flags of convenience and the way in which conservation groups, even ones like Sea Shepherd that have adopted highly dangerous tactics in remote waters, and industry can work together on integrated measures on IUU fishing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to IUU fishing it’s not toothfish in the Southern Ocean that we now need to be concerned about. Sea Shepherd arrived after the problem had been virtually eliminated: there’s been no illegal fishing inside our Antarctic marine estate — or any of our sub-Antarctic islands’ offshore zones — since 2006.
Rather, it’s Asia that’s now presenting the major challenges in IUU fishing, particularly with regard to unregulated fishing.
Martin Exel is general manager, environment and policy of Austral Fisheries, who fish for toothfish in Australia’s sub-Antarctic territories. He chairs the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO Inc.). Anthony Bergin is deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.