The Big Catch: A relentless pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel

On 31 March last year, hundreds of miles southeast off the coast of Nigeria, in the Gulf of Guinea, Siddharth Chakravarty sat at the helm of the Sam Simon, a 184-foot ship under his command. Chakravarty, a youthful-faced 32-year-old from Bhopal, was looking ahead at the Thunder—a 202-foot, steel-sided vessel, wanted by Interpol for illegal and unreported fishing. To the Sam Simon’s left was its slightly smaller companion ship, the Bob Barker. The two vessels had been pursuing the Thunder for over 100 days, across three oceans and more than 10,000 nautical miles.

The Sam Simon and the Bob Barker belong to Sea Shepherd, an international non-profit that works to protect marine wildlife. Sea Shepherd monitors and documents the activities of illegal fishing vessels, and reports them to authorities such as Interpol. The organisation has on occasion used controversially confrontational tactics, such as cutting poachers’ fishing nets.

Seafaring activists such as Chakravarty are vastly outnumbered by the criminals they oppose. Illegal fishing is one of the most profitable and prevalent maritime crimes. A 2015 statement by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing “is estimated to strip between $10 billion and $23 billion from the global economy.” This fishing undermines biodiversity, by killing protected species and threatening the balance of marine ecosystems. It can also deplete local fish stocks, jeopardising food security for people in certain regions. Because of a failure to allocate adequate resources, as well as jurisdictional grey areas in international waters, local and global authorities seldom arrest or prosecute illegal fishers. In the fight against such crimes, activists fill a crucial void in law enforcement—as Sea Shepherd did by pursuing the Thunder, in what proved to be the longest chase of an illegal fishing vessel in maritime history.

In December 2013, Interpol released a purple notice on the Thunder’s crimes, effectively labelling it a “most wanted” vessel. The ship specialised in poaching the Patagonian toothfish, a species of cod icefish more commonly known as the Chilean seabass. Interpol’s notice stated that the ship, originally registered in the Faroe Islands, had changed its name and flag “several times” in order “to avoid the detection of prohibited fishing activities”—an evasive strategy commonly used by maritime criminals. According to a New York Times feature on the chase, Interpol estimated that the ship’s owners had made over $76 million in profits. Even after the Interpol notice, no government or law-enforcement body apprehended the ship.

A year later, in December 2014, Sea Shepherd launched Operation Icefish, a campaign targeting six fugitive icefish-poaching vessels, the most notorious of which was the Thunder. Illegal fishing operators, Sea Shepherd’s website stated, “will be physically obstructed from deploying their illegal gillnets and unlawful fishing gear will be confiscated and destroyed.” That same month, the Sam Simon  and the Bob Barker began patrolling the Antarctic Ocean in search of the ships. On 17 December, they spotted the Thunder near the Banzare Bank of Antarctica. While the Bob Barker immediately gave chase, the Sam Simon stayed behind to retrieve 25 kilometres of illegal gillnet that the poaching vessel had laid. The Sam Simon then followed the Bob Barker and the Thunder through three oceans—the Antarctic, the Indian, and finally the South Atlantic.

In the midst of that pursuit, the activists spotted the Kunlun and the Yongding, two other fishing vessels on their list of six. Chakravarty led his team in following them, while the Bob Barker continued chasing the Thunder. Within a few weeks, the Sam Simon tracked down both ships, got them detained, and returned to the Bob Barker’s side.

Conditions on the chase were difficult. From the helm, Chakravarty described to me how, once, theThunder had ventured “into thick ice, with the hope that the Bob Barker wouldn’t follow her.” When the pursuit continued, he said, the Thunder “headed into two storms where there were over-70-knot winds, with the ships rolling about 40 degrees on each side.” Many aboard the Sam Simon and the Bob Barker reported violent gestures from deck officers on the Thunder, who occasionally came out, wearing ski masks and balaclavas, and threw objects at the Sea Shepherd crew.

I visited the Sam Simon, on a photography assignment from the New York Times, on the hundred-and-fourth day of the chase. By then, the crew—who came from various national and professional backgrounds—had settled in to a daily routine of deck chores, workouts, and late-night book reading. Peter Hammarstedt, the captain of the Bob Barker, told me the pursuit had become “more of a siege,” whose victor would “ultimately be the part that has the most food, the most fuel and the most patience to see this to the end.” Sea Shepherd originally planned Operation Icefish as a two-month campaign, but it had already almost doubled in length.  The previous record for the longest chase of an illegal fishing vessel had been only 21 days. I left the Sam Simon on 4 April, on the hundred-and-eighth day of the mission, with no sense of when it would end.

But just two days later, near São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation near the West African coast, theBob Barker received an unexpected distress call from the Thunder. The fishing ship was sinking, and its deck officers were calling for assistance from their dogged pursuers. The Sam Simon took on board everyone from the Thunder—30 Indonesian crew members, and 10 officers from Spain, Chile and Portugal.

As the rescue mission progressed, three crew members from the Bob Barker scrambled aboard the sinking Thunder, to collect as much evidence of the ship’s illicit activities as possible. No law-enforcement officials arrived on the scene to investigate what made the ship sink, although Chakravarty did coordinate with port officials in São Tomé and Príncipe to ensure that the Sam Simonwould be met by police and Interpol officers when it docked.

Many Sea Shepherd members I spoke to believe that the officers and crew of the Thunder sank the ship to bury evidence that could be instrumental to their prosecution. The Sea Shepherd website, updated on the day of the ship’s sinking, quoted Hammarstedt as saying: “When my Chief Engineer boarded theThunder in the hours leading up to the sinking, he was able to confirm that there were clear signs that the vessel was intentionally scuttled.” Interpol updated the original purple notice on 23 April, saying that the “circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Thunder” were “under investigation.”

In July, in a São Tomé and Príncipe court, the Thunder’s captain, chief engineer and second mechanic were charged with several offences tied to illegal fishing, including pollution, negligence and forgery. The three officers remained in police custody until September, when the trial—at which both Chakravarty and Hammarstedt testified—began. On 12 October 2015, the officers were handed prison sentences, each approximately three years in length. Together, they were fined a total of over $17 million.

The excitement surrounding last year’s operation marked a high point in Chakravarty’s five-year career with Sea Shepherd. In 1984, as a child in Bhopal, he narrowly escaped injury in a gas leak, from a Union Carbide pesticide plant, that killed thousands of the city’s people. He joined the Indian merchant navy when aged 18, and later worked as a second officer on a chemical tanker. One night in 2009, as Chakravarty loaded the hold of his ship with a noxious, odourless substance, he realised that it was “the same as the Union Carbide chemicals from which my family was spared.” Rattled, he decided to quit his job, and joined Sea Shepherd the next year.

Since last month, Chakravarty has been commanding a ship called the Steve Irwin through shadowy regions of the Antarctic Ocean, as part of the second campaign of Operation Icefish. Quoted on the Sea Shepherd website, Chakravarty was clear on the campaign’s purpose. “The oceans are in peril and our actions remain the only proactive and definite policing presence to tackle illegality,” he said. “We intend to embrace the responsibility with courage and fortitude.”

First published on The Caravan.

Q&A with award winning documentarian, Sorious Samura
My Essay in ZAM Magazine