A São Tomé and Príncipe court on Monday convicted the captain of a fishing ship, the Thunder, and two crew members on several charges tied to illegal fishing, a prosecutor in the case said. The verdict was the culmination of a dramatic, 10,000-mile chase from Antarctica to the Gulf of Guinea.
The Thunder, which had been on Interpol’s most-wanted list, was spotted last year poaching fish in Antarctic waters and was chased by an environmental group, Sea Shepherd, for more than 110 days until it sank in early April off São Tomé and Príncipe, a West African island state. Prosecutors from São Tomé and Príncipe and Sea Shepherd officials speculated that the Thunder’s captain had sunk the ship on purpose to dispose of evidence.
“This isn’t just a victory for our country,” said Frederique Samba Viegas D’Abreu, the attorney general of São Tomé and Príncipe. “It’s a victory for the oceans and against these international crime syndicates that have operated for too long above the law.”
The chase highlighted the lack of policing on the high seas and the rarity of bringing well-documented maritime scofflaws to justice. Documents seized from the Thunder shortly before it sank were sent to Germany and prompted investigations across Europe whose scope includes companies in Spain, where the ship’s owners are said to be based, according to Interpol officials.
In recent months, Spain has raided several illegal fishing businesses as part of an effort to enforce its new fisheries law, which took effect this year and allows the Spanish authorities to punish citizens guilty of involvement in illegal fishing.
The captain of the Thunder, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo of Chile, received a three-year sentence; the ship’s chief engineer, Agustín Dosil Rey of Spain, was sentenced to two years and nine months; and the second mechanic, Luis Miguel Pérez Fernández, also of Spain, to two years and eight months, according to Kelve Nobre de Carvalho, a prosecutor in the case. Collectively, the men were also fined over $17 million.
All three men had been under house arrest in São Tomé and Príncipe since they were rescued by Sea Shepherd, handed over to the authorities and charged with pollution, reckless driving, forgery and negligence. Their lawyer said in court that they planned to appeal the verdict.
An investigation by the attorney general’s office in São Tomé and Príncipe revealed that the Nigerian-registered company listed as the owner of the Thunder did not exist. The license of the Thunder’s captain was suspended for over a year in May by the Chilean government, and he was fined more than $30,000.
Globally, illegal fishing costs more than $20 billion annually, and one in every five fish imported to the United States is thought to have been caught illegally.