International Cooperation Leads to Illegal Fishing Conviction of Captain, Crew

Interpol named vessel among world's most notorious fish poachers

International Cooperation Leads to Illegal Fishing Conviction of Captain, Crew

The small African island state of São Tomé and Príncipe just closed the case on an infamous illegal fishing operation, and the result highlights that the future of fishery crime-fighting lies in international cooperation.

On Oct. 12, a court for the nation off Africa’s western coast handed down guilty verdicts for the captain, chief engineer, and second engineer of the fishing vessel Thunder. They’ll each spend about three years in prison and collectively owe $17 million in fines. The steep punishment is thought to be a match for the vessel’s lengthy list of suspected crimes.

The Thunder had been blacklisted by fishery management bodies for years but kept appearing in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. There, it was believed to have caught thousands of tons of Patagonian toothfish, making its owners millions of dollars. In April, while attempting to outrun authorities and a boat from Sea Shepherd, the nongovernmental advocacy organization that had the vessel and crew on the run for 110 days, the Thunder sank in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. It’s been reported that the crew intentionally scuttled the vessel to hide alleged crimes.

The Thunder’s notoriety made it one of the first vessels to garner the attention of Project Scale, an Interpol-led initiative to address illegal fishing and associated crimes. In 2013, the international police organization issued a so-called purple notice informing governments that the vessel was among the world’s most wanted.

“Transnational fisheries crimes are complex and far-reaching, but the successful outcome of the Thunder case demonstrates how, when countries work together to share intelligence and connect investigations, these criminals can be caught and their networks dismantled,” David Higgins, head of Interpol’s environmental security unit, said in announcing the convictions.

Indeed, international cooperation is needed to bring illegal fishers to justice. That begins with the basics of properly identifying and tracking vessels, and it ends with ensuring that ports are closed to illegally caught fish. Laws that set standards for inspections and collecting evidence help to tie it together.

International cooperation takes leadership, which is the silver bullet in combatting illegal fishing. São Tomé and Príncipe joined the fight with an impressive salvo.

Tony Long directs the ending illegal fishing project for The Pew Charitable Trusts.