The Alphabet Boats (2002)

A Case Study of Toothfish Poaching in the Southern Ocean


Earlier this year, the Australian Navy apprehended two longliners, the Lena and the Volga, fishing for toothfish without licences in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Heard and Macdonald Islands on the Kerguelen Plateau in the Southern Ocean. Subsequent interrogation of officers and crew aboard these two poachers revealed an amazing story of systematic toothfish poaching on a scale never seen before and with a degree of sophistication never contemplated by earlier poachers.

Rather than having to deal with individual rogue fishermen from traditional deep sea fishing nations like Norway and Spain, governments are now faced with having to meet the challenges of a large corporation –  the Hong Kong-based global fish trading company, Pacific Andes International Holdings (and its Jakarta based subsidiary, Sun Hope Investments, among many other corporate tentacles). This is a serious challenge to all governments, companies, community groups and citizens concerned for sustainable management of deep sea fish stocks throughout the world.

This is one of the principal reasons why governments that are members of CCAMLR (the Convention on Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) need the support of CITES member governments. Such support would take the form of extending the scope of CCAMLR’s existing catch documentation scheme through a CITES Appendix II listing for both species of toothfish. This would oblige many more governments, including those inadvertently involved in toothfish poaching (like Indonesia and China), to cooperate in monitoring and reporting on trade in toothfish and toothfish products.

It is not going to be enough to just halt the present perpetrators as there will be other companies or corporations that move in to fill the gap left if one group is prevented from illegal fishing. It’s an ongoing problem, and one that requires a unique solution by as many governments and countries as possible if it’s to be fixed.

The Alphabet Boats

Documentation discovered on board the poachers apprehended by Australian authorities identified a literal ‘alphabet’ of boats with professionally coordinated fishing activities, transhipment of fish at sea, refuelling at sea, changing crew and provisions at sea, and operational techniques designed to evade apprehension. These boats, all flagged to Belize at that time, were the Austin, Boston, Champion, Darwin (aka Darvin 1), Eva (aka Eva 1, aka Neva), Florence (aka Florens 1), Georgia (aka Zarya?), and Hunter (aka Strela). Two others, called Isabel and Jackson, have more recently joined the ‘alphabet’ fleet. Additionally, four Russian-flagged vessels (at that time), the Lena, Neva, Ural and Volga were also implicated. Further investigation has revealed that several more state- of-the-art longliners, provisionally named, ‘K’, ‘L’ & ‘M’, are under construction in Taiwan.

Ownership structures, flag states, operational bases, and names of these vessels have been changed numerous times in the past year in an endeavour to conceal their true identity and purpose. The boats initially flagged in Belize have been moved at least once, and are now flagged in Bolivia. Front companies for ownership of these boats have changed at least once as well — the Russian-named front company for several of the boats did not even exist when searches were made. Bolivian company ownership/directorship is not publicly available information without approval of the Company Directors, which provides a perfect curtain for illegal activity and beneficial owners to hide behind.


Video still: Pirates hide vessel’s name

Coordination is so calculated that it appears that the older longliners, Lena and Volga, were ‘sacrificed’ as an acceptable business risk, by placing them in the path of oncoming Australian naval vessels while the newer and more valuable longliners in the poaching fleet dispersed outside the Australian EEZ – only to return as soon as the Navy had left the area with their ‘prizes’.

The use of ‘alphabet’ names for this group of vessels obviously infers overall control by a single entity, readily identified by seized documentation, interrogation of arrested officers, and subsequent investigations, as a group of companies established, beneficially owned, controlled and managed out of Hong Kong by Ng Swee Hong and his family and business associates. One such company, Pacific Andes International Holdings, is a holding company that controls not only the legitimate operations of Pacific Andes subsidiaries throughout the world but also facilitates operations of a fleet of illegal longliners. Pacific Andes’ operations disguise the origin of the fish and fish products from these illegal operations through its processing and distribution operations and trading arrangements. Recycled fish products are then sold through legitimate trading relationships: mostly into East Asian cities, including Japan; into North America, especially the USA; and, to a lesser extent, into Western Europe.
Sun Hope Investments – the Jakarta connection
P.T. Sun Hope Investments in Jakarta is managed by Pacific Andes General Manager and Director of Sun Hope Investments Mr Ng Joo Thieng. P.T. Sun Hope Investments , set up especially for the task in December 2000, services the ‘alphabet’ boats and ensures that the fishing fleet is kept virtually permanently on station on the Kergeulen Plateau and southern ocean. It does this by organising transhipments at sea, and ensuring that toothfish are safely landed in Jakarta and consigned to Pacific Andes’ fish processing factories in China’s Qingdao Province and elsewhere. Indonesian searches of public records indicate there are 4 of the Pacific Andes’ Directors directly involved with PT Sun Hope Investments in Jakarta over recent times:

– Ng Swee Hong (President Commissioner of Sun Hope, Chairman of Pacific Andes);

– Ng Joo Siang (Director of Sun Hope, Managing Director of Pacific Andes);

– Teh Hong Eng (Commissioner of Sun Hope, and Director of Pacific Andes); and

– Ng Joo Thieng (President Director of Sun Hope, and General Manager of Pacific Andes).

Mr Ng Joo Thieng has a principal lieutenant at Sun Hope, Spaniard, Sr Jose Pathos (or Paxos), who is apparently responsible for organising the ‘alphabet’ fleet operations. Sr Pathos is the fleet master and works with others, including Sr. Pedro Grimaldi in Las Palmas (Canary Islands), to arrange recruitment of Spanish fishing masters and also crews from all over the world, including Russian engineers and officers. Deck crews are predominately Indonesian and Chinese nationals.


Video still: Jakarta docks

The ‘alphabet’ boats are provided with comprehensive port services by PT Eka Nuri in conjunction with PT Sun Hope Investments. PT Eka Nuri is a company with its own private port facilities within the main Jakarta dock complex at Tanjung Priok, 20km north-east of Jakarta city. Eka Nuri Operations Manager, Harry Utomo, is responsible for organising ship and crew movements in and out of the port. Eka Nuri also provides comprehensive security for the port area including engagement of local military units. It is important to note that such military involvement does not, of itself, indicate Indonesian government awareness of, or sanctioning of, Sun Hope’s use of Indonesian facilities, companies and citizens for servicing illegal fishing operations.

Once the toothfish have been landed and transferred to refrigerated containers, the containers are cleared through the main port for export as general cargo by Jardines’ local subsidiary, PL Jardines. Whether Jardines are aware of the provenance of the frozen fish for which they provide freight services to Sun Hope and Pacific Andes has yet to be established.

Inevitably, Pacific Andes denied responsibility for these activities when exposed to the media in Australia. On 3 October 2002, Mr Ng Joo Siang, Pacific Andes’ Managing Director, released a media statement on behalf of the company that said, in part: “Pacific Andes categorically states that:

  • neither Pacific Andes and its subsidiaries, nor P.T. Sun Hope Investments, owns, operates or controls any of the fishing vessels referred to by the Media Reports, or any other fishing vessels;
  • Pacific Andes sold all its fishing vessels in 1998. Since then Pacific Andes at no time has had any control over the fishing activities of any fishing vessel;
  • every consignment of fish purchased by Pacific Andes is legal and supported by proper certification and documentations issued by the relevant governmental or appropriate authorities.”

What Pacific Andes does not deny is that it does service the ‘alphabet’ boats and does purchase and process the fish they catch. This would appear to be just another of Pacific Andes’ customarily highly leveraged arrangements with the fishing operations it sold out of in 1998 – in retaining exclusive marketing arrangements as part of the sale agreements. The ‘alphabet’ boats are, of course, technically operated and controlled by their Spanish skippers while being owned by dummy companies in (at various times) the British Virgin Islands, Russia, Belize, Bolivia and elsewhere.

As for getting the right certification and documentation, it is generally regarded as a fairly simple task to get officials in agencies under inadequate central government control in flag states like Bolivia and Russia and port states like Indonesia to generate ‘appropriate’ paperwork. There are a number of measures under ongoing discussion among CCAMLR governments aimed at closing loopholes in their toothfish Catch Documentation Scheme and at making it easier to detect bogus documentation.

Far from denying its role in organising the ‘alphabet’ boats, in the same media statement, Pacific Andes assert “.. we have been providing shipping services and agency services such as bunkering, provision supply and other logistics services to numerous fishing vessels in different ports – We even provide such services to fishing vessels at high sea.” In other words, their ‘alphabet’ boat operation is not breaking laws in Indonesia or China, and Mr Ng believes that it is suffiently ‘at arms length’ to pose little threat either to Pacific Andes’ trading relationships or to its owners’ and managers’ business reputations.

The Impact of Illegal Fishing for Toothfish

Such a large scale and intensive fishing operation targeting the Kerguelen Plateau, if allowed to continue, is likely to result in commercial extinction of local toothfish stocks within a few years. Because of the precautionary yield models used by CCAMLR scientists in calculating allowable catches, the fishery is likely to be promptly closed to licensed fishers leaving remaining stocks at the mercy of the poachers. Additionally, this intense level of longlining by unlicensed operators, under no obligation to comply with CCAMLR Conservation Measures to protect albatross and petrel species, will pose an increased risk of imminent extinction for populations of already endangered albatross species nesting on sub-antarctic islands in the region.


Video still: Pirate vessel bird bycatch

Governments that demur and defer decisions to help combat toothfish poaching, under pressure from their domestic fishing industries (fearing that a CITES Appendix II listing for toothfish could be the ‘thin end of the wedge’ for listing other commercial fishstocks), need to understand the depth of opprobrium they will face from the wider global community if they do not act promptly and decisively.

The Response to Illegal Fishing

CITES Appendix II is not a “possible option” to save toothfish stocks, it’s an option of “last resort” to try and stem the huge scale and extraordinary nature of illegal fishing that is threatening some toothfish stocks. There is an urgent need for CITES member governments to work together to assist CCAMLR in controlling toothfish fishing and eliminating IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing practices from the sub Antarctic and Antarctic waters.

We commend to all delegates attending the Santiago CITES meeting, the proposal of the Australian government (as modified to take account of the advice and recommendations of the CITES Secretariat) to include toothfish species on Appendix II. In this way, governments can best assist each other in dealing with this unique and unprecedented threat to a particularly vulnerable fish stock. Meanwhile, we will be working to ensure that like-minded companies and community organisations contribute to the efforts of government to eliminate IUU fishing within all toothfish fisheries as soon as possible.

Video stills are taken from ABC TV Four Corners Report

The Toothfish Pirates” September 2002. Copies of this video are available upon request.