Epic hunt for toothfish poachers ends in the Atlantic
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Epic hunt for toothfish poachers ends in the Atlantic

Sea Shepherd’s Operation Icefish ended early this week with the bizarre sinking of Interpol-wanted vessel, The Thunder, inside the Exclusive Economic Zone of Sao Tome.

After 110 days of action, chasing the elusive vessel, Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson said the campaign has accomplished its mission. The longest hot pursuit of a poaching vessel in maritime history, Operation Icefish has been “the most successful intervention against high-seas poaching in the history of anti-poaching operations,” the captain said.

Thunder, the most notorious of the so-called “Bandit 6, was sunk deliberately by its crew as they clapped and cheered, media reports said. It was left with clear signs that the vessel was intentionally scuttled. The hatches were not closed to maintain buoyancy, but instead, the doors and hatches were tied open, along with the fishhold. The vessel then went down 4,000 meters below.

Watson is convinced the vessel was scuttled as a deliberate act of desperation. It was allegedly owned by unscrupulous and wealthy fishing companies based in Galicia, Spain.

According to Watson, the illegal toothfish industry linked to Spanish companies has suffered a severe financial blow, and faces the face criminal courts in Malaysia, Thailand, and Sao Tome for its illegal activities, including illegal fishing, illegal registration, and false declarations. Deliberately scuttling a ship in the territorial waters of Sao Tome is also a crime.

AFMA

Australia is involved in arresting toothfish poachers in the Southern Ocean (Photo: AFMA)

Watson praised his colleagues for carrying out a “marathon campaign”, which succeeded in ending poachers’ supremacy over the waters of the Southern Ocean.

No oil was observed after the sinking and there was very little fuel left onboard at the time. All evidence gathered will be turned over to Interpol.

Sea Shepherd ships Bob Barker and Sam Simon rescued all 40 people on board the sinking vessel and provided them with vegan meal and warm blankets.

Operation Icefish has focused attention on the illegal poaching of toothfish and has involved the authorities in New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Mauritius, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Spain, as well as Interpol.

In reaction to the sinking, several countries, including New Zealand, are now considering action. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, for one, says his country is concerned about The Thunder, noted as a “illegal, unreported and unregulated” (IUU) vessel, especially with its sinking into the ocean. He said any sinking at sea poses risks to human life and the environment.

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Sea Shepherd takes a dramatic shot on the sinking of the Thunder. (Photo: Sea Shepherd)

“We have been working to put all IUU vessels operating in the Southern Ocean out of business,” McCully said, adding that shutting down this sort of illegal fishing is not straightforward and requires the full support of international partners.

“We are now part of the international efforts being co-ordinated by Interpol to investigate the activities of the vessel (Thunder) including its sinking,” McCully said.

Prime Minister John Key commented, “There are legal processes we can follow and other countries potentially can follow as well depending on which territorial waters it’s in.”

The Australian government, however, has not made any comment so far.

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The Thunder is scuttled and sunk into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Sao Tome.