The Hunt for the Last Chilean Sea Bass Poachers

They were the few ships left of what was once one of the most lucrative illegal fishing operations in history. An inside look at the high seas chases that may have brought them down for good.


It was Feb. 2, on a freezing sea 80 miles from the Antarctic coast. The wind was blowing at a blustery 20 knots, the sky was dark gray, and the sea was full of ice. “It was one of those murky days that don’t make you very happy you’re in Antarctica,” recalled Siddharth Chakravarty, the 32-year-old captain of the Sam Simon. Chakravarty and his crew were hunting for six pirate ships known to be illegally fishing one of the world’s most expensive fish, known as the Chilean sea bass.

It was Feb. 2, on a freezing sea 80 miles from the Antarctic coast. The wind was blowing at a blustery 20 knots, the sky was dark gray, and the sea was full of ice. “It was one of those murky days that don’t make you very happy you’re in Antarctica,” recalled Siddharth Chakravarty, the 32-year-old captain of the Sam Simon. Chakravarty and his crew were hunting for six pirate ships known to be illegally fishing one of the world’s most expensive fish, known as the Chilean sea bass.

Light had broken at 6 a.m. and the Sam Simon had spent the morning cautiously threading its way around the icebergs, with multiple lookouts scanning the moving scenery. At 8:30 a.m., Chakravarty’s mood brightened: His first mate announced she had spotted trails on the ship’s radar that were moving in the opposite direction from the drifting icebergs. Soon, two white, rust-streaked fishing vessels slightly smaller than the Sam Simon came into view. “The moment they saw us, they turned to the north,” he said. The chase was on.

The Sam Simon sped up, tossing mountains of spray back into the sea as the waves crashed off its high-winged bow, which was menacingly painted with giant shark-like teeth that make it look rather like, well, a pirate ship. When it caught up with the first vessel, the Yongding, Chakravarty saw that the ship’s crew had opened the aft trawl door and laid their fishing nets on deck, ready to be deployed. He concluded the Yongding and the other vessel, the Kunlun, had been heading toward an area two hours away where the bottom was just the right depth for their prey.

The Yongding and the Kunlun soon split up and Chakravarty chose to shadow the latter, perhaps the most notorious of the six. It stayed close behind for a tumultuous week during which the Kunlun tried to ram the Sam Simon and entangle its propeller with fishing lines. On Feb. 10, Chakravarty peeled off, satisfied that he’d driven the pirate vessel so far from the fishing grounds that it wouldn’t have enough fuel to go back and resume fishing and still be able to reach the ports in Asia where the pirates are thought to sell their catch. Meanwhile, the Bob Barker, Sam Simon’s partner vessel in this high seas anti-poaching campaign, was 1,500 miles away in the Indian Ocean shadowing another illegal fishing ship, the Thunder.

Both the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon are part of the fleet of Sea Shepherd Global, a high-profile conservation group based in Amsterdam known for its aggressive anti-whaling campaigns. This year, Sea Shepherd had sent them to collect evidence against and drive away six pirate vessels that had been fishing Chilean sea bass illegally in the Southern Ocean for years. The campaign lasted almost four months, stretching from Antarctica to Thailand and resulting in the Thunder sinking off the coast of West Africa and port authorities detaining the five other vessels, which Sea Shepherd had called the Bandit 6. It was a remarkable turnaround for a fishery that was so destructive just a decade ago that environmentalists had staged a boycott campaign called “Take a Pass on Sea Bass.” At stake today is whether a coalition of governments, nonprofits, and marine scientists can prevent the Chilean sea bass from going the way of the once-abundant Atlantic cod — into the history books.

* * *

Taxonomically speaking, there is no such thing as a Chilean sea bass.

The name is an invention, sprung from the imagination of an American fish importer named Lee Lantz in 1977 to better market in the United States a mottled-gray and strikingly inelegant animal known as the Patagonian toothfish that he stumbled across in Valparaiso, Chile. The fish was first hauled up by local fishermen who had experimentally lowered baited hooks into its cold, lightless habitat, 3,000 to 5,000 feet below the surface of Chile’s coast, and brought up a few of the odd-looking fish. Lantz spotted one at a market and cooked it. He discovered that its flesh is white, a color Americans like; oily, which makes it buttery and hard to overcook; and bland, perfect for fish sticks — and even better for top chefs for whom it could serve as the perfect palette on which to paint their seasonings: Chef Rick Moonen’s miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, for instance, became his signature dish when he owned the Oceana restaurant in New York City.

The toothfish — so named because of its gaping mouth bristling with razor-sharp teeth — can live up to 50 years and weigh as much as 150 pounds. It is, in fact, a member of the perch family, not a bass, and only a tiny proportion now comes from Chile. It’s a slow-growing gray predator that includes two species, the Patagonian (Dissostichus eleginoides) and the Antarctic (Dissostichus mawsoni), both sold indiscriminately as Chilean sea bass in the United States, where half the catch is consumed, or as snowfish in Asia, which takes in about 40 percent.

As demand for toothfish rose in the 1980s, prices soared and industrial fishing vessels quickly depleted the Chilean and Argentinian stocks. But the world’s appetite for this new delicacy remained unsated and in the 1990s, the fleets, many from Spain and Soviet-bloc countries, illegally entered and fished out the waters of the next-most-accessible fishing grounds — islands like Britain’s South Georgia, France’s Kerguelen, and South Africa’s Prince Edward.

The poachers, who depleted one zone before moving to the next, had just begun fishing Australia’s Heard Island, 2,700 miles southwest of Perth, when commercial fishing company Austral Fisheries, based in Perth, began legally fishing off Heard in 1997. “We found six poachers when we got there — it was pretty bad,” said the company’s CEO, David Carter, in an interview. By the early 2000s, their numbers had only multiplied.

When the Australian navy in 2002 boarded two of the interlopers, the Lena and the Volga, for illegally fishing in its waters near Heard, they found documents that revealed “systematic toothfish poaching on a scale never seen before,” a study found.

Carter, whose Austral Fisheries now accounts for 70 percent of the Australian toothfish catch, said it took years of lobbying and the creation in 2003 of the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators, which commissioned the study, to get the Australian customs service to start regularly patrolling the area in 2004 with armed vessels carrying gun-toting boarding parties. “If they had come in a few years later, there would have been nothing left to fish,” Carter said.

But by then, illegal toothfish were flooding the market and depressing prices. These fell even more when some 1,000 top chefs — including Moonen of Oceana — in the United States, prodded by ocean conservation groups, took the fish off their menus in a flurry of publicity stirred up by the “Take a Pass on Sea Bass” campaign.

By 2010, the bulk of poachers had been chased out of the waters surrounding the Southern Ocean islands by their respective navies, and most of the catch there was legal. Port authorities — particularly in Asia and Africa — were becoming more vigilant about stopping the sale of illegally fished seafood and, under pressure from Interpol, were increasingly active in identifying and reporting wanted ships. The countries with offshore Antarctic possessions (Britain, France, Australia, and South Africa), along with the 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which regulates the fishery off Antarctica’s coast, agreed to set yearly catch limits designed to ensure that the toothfish population would not be reduced to less than half of its original size. The toothfish poaching problem appeared to have come under control.

But over the past decade, the prices fishermen in port received for their catch crept back up from $3 to $13 per pound currently. And while most of the poaching vessels stayed away from the islands, a handful of ships, widely believed by Interpol to be Spanish-owned through opaque shell corporations, found the rising prices irresistible and, unlike the others, kept right on fishing in the international waters off the Antarctic continent. Their current catch has been estimated at up to 20 percent of the legal catch — a huge improvement since the early 2000s, when the illegal fleet was hauling in 80 percent, but still a significant threat to a fish whose slow reproductive cycle makes it exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing.

* * *

The Spanish poachers have been the most tenacious in hanging on to their illegal but highly profitable fishery. As Interpol tightened controls in the last few years, these poachers found that registering ships in so-called “flag of convenience” states (poor countries with little or no controls over their fleets) became harder and harder. When they were caught poaching, the flag states disowned them because of, as Carter put it, “pressure from civil society and Purple Notices from Interpol. Nobody would play their game anymore — they just became too hot to handle.”

So the poachers turned to manufacturing their own false papers — “all you need is Adobe Professional,” said Chakravarty — and they became stateless, which is the legal definition of a pirate ship. That freed them to take up banned nylon gill nets that are sunk like a curtain on the bottom. The gill nets can triple the daily catch that the legal fleet brings in with baited hooks, but they also indiscriminately kill other fish, crabs, and even corals. In a short season, a pirate ship can catch 300 tons of toothfish worth $4 million to $6 million.

On CCAMLR’s current list of poachers, six vessels stand out for having been spotted illegally fishing toothfish practically every year for the past decade or more: the Viking, the Perlon, the Kunlun, the Songhua, the Yongding, and the Thunder. Four of them were listed as having been owned at one point or another by Vidal Armadores, a Spanish company long associated with toothfish poaching. “Everything we have seen points to Vidal Armadores continuing to control and manage this illegal activity in the Southern Ocean,” said New Zealand’s foreign minister, Murray McCully, in a statement in January.

Spurred by the growing outcry against the pirate poachers, the Amsterdam-based Sea Shepherd organization made its move. It may prove decisive.

Last December, the organization sent the 165-foot Bob Barker, built in Norway as a whale catcher, and the 176-foot Sam Simon, built in Japan as an oceanographic research vessel, to hound the pirates out of the toothfish fishing grounds. Both ships, veterans of Antarctic anti-whaling campaigns, are named after celebrity donors and are staffed with an international staff of professionals as officers and volunteers as crew (Chakravarty, master of the Sam Simon, is from India; Peter Hammarstedt, 30, the skipper of the Bob Barker, is Swedish). The two ships had no internationally recognized authority to board or detain the poachers, but they were prepared to physically prevent the pirates from fishing, to chase them out of the fishing grounds, and to collect evidence of illegal fishing and present it to authorities.

The Bob Barker found its first prey, the Thunder, on Dec. 17 near the Antarctic continent. It was wanted by Interpol and bedecked with illegal gill nets and other fishing gear.

The Thunder, like the Kunlun, immediately fled, but it also abandoned 45 miles of gill nets. These were recovered over a three-week period by the Sam Simon while the Bob Barker gave chase. They provided the first major look by outsiders of the damage bottom gill nets could wreak at such depths: Chakravarty said his crew winched in 50 tons of marine life, of which only a quarter was toothfish.

As his crew was pulling up, counting, and measuring the rotten fish, crabs, and squid (fishers normally pull up gill nets every day or two, for the fauna caught in them die quickly), the New Zealand navy’s Wellington patrol ship caught the Kunlun, the Songhua, and the Yongding fishing near Antarctica’s Ross Sea. They were all flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea, which when queried denied any knowledge of them. Having established that they were stateless pirate ships illegally fishing in CCAMLR waters, the Wellington tried to board them, but was prevented by poor weather and a lack of fuel and left, the New Zealand authorities said.

After the Sam Simon caught up with the Kunlun with the Thunder’s fishing gear on deck on Feb. 2, it trailed it for a week before heading to Mauritius and handing over the nets to Interpol officers.

A few weeks later, the Kunlun, renamed Taishan and flying an Indonesian flag, pulled into Phuket, Thailand, and unloaded 182 tons of frozen toothfish labeled as grouper, which is legal and requires none of the certification paperwork that toothfish does. The boxes of fish were placed onto a fleet of trucks and reached the border with Vietnam, but there the cargo was found to be fraudulently labeled and was impounded, along with the ship. The captain and crew were allowed to leave. A Phuket newspaper reported that an agent for Vidal Armadores, the Spanish company that was one of the ship’s past owners on record, showed up and tried to get the fish (worth perhaps $4 million) released, and left unsuccessful. The Thai Embassy in Washington confirmed the Kunlun was detained but declined to give further details.

Two other ships in the same fleet, the Viking, which was the first of the six to be listed as wanted by Interpol, and the Perlon, which the authorities said had 330 tons of toothfish in its hold, were detained in Malaysia — the Viking in March and the Perlon in May. For a time, it seemed like the last two ships of the Bandit 6, the Yongding and the Songhua, might evade authorities: It was weeks after the end of the summer fishing season, and no one knew where they were.

* * *

After finding and chasing the Kunlun out of the fishing zone, the Sam Simon caught up with and resupplied the Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker as it doggedly pursued the Thunder up the coast of West Africa. On April 6, on a calm sea, the Nigerian-registered Thunder, which the Nigerian authorities had disowned, came to its spectacular end. After its captain called out a Mayday, the ship began to list. The crew stepped into lifeboats, and as the crew on the Bob Barker looked on in amazement, the Thunder, built in Norway in 1969 as a state-of-the-art trawler, sank with its illegal cargo as its own crew cheered. “They clearly scuttled the ship to hide the evidence,” said Hammarstedt, the Bob Barker captain. He took in the Thunder’s crew and dropped them off in São Tomé, where the skipper is still being held. The chase had lasted nearly four months, the longest on record by far.

From São Tomé, Hammarstedt took the Bob Barker to Ghana where he disembarked and went on a sabbatical that first took him to Mindelo, in the nearby Cape Verde islands. In the harbor, he recognized a ship called the Itziar II that is also on CCAMLR’s blacklist, but that hadn’t been seen in the Southern Ocean since 2009. Intrigued, he borrowed a dinghy and took a closer look. “The interior bulkheads were being stripped out, the decks were piled with salvaged timber, and all of the bridge windows were missing,” he wrote in an email. Clearly, this ship would not be poaching soon, he thought.

On his final drive to the airport on May 19, Hammarstedt took a last look across the bay and noticed that a new ship had arrived. It looked strangely familiar. “Everything about it looked like the images that I’d seen … of the three Asian-built sister ships: the Kunlun, Songhua, and Yongding,” he wrote. He had a friend take a picture for him and then forwarded it to the New Zealand authorities. They quickly confirmed that it was indeed the Songhua, freshly renamed the Kadei of Sierra Leone. The next day, Hammarstedt’s friend reported that it was joined by the Yongding, sailing as the Luampa. A day later, the Cape Verde port authorities boarded and detained both vessels: The last of the Bandit 6 were, at least temporarily, out of action.

“It was all a coincidence,” Hammarstedt said. The Songhua and the Yongding had been expected to show up in Southeast Asia, like the other three; instead, they went to the one port where the Sea Shepherd keeps permanent staff — and they arrived while Hammarstedt was visiting.

“If the countries that detained the ships don’t let them go, it could mean the end of one of the most profitable illegal fisheries in the world,” said Chakravarty. But that’s no sure thing: There are unconfirmed reports from Phuket that the Thai authorities may yet release the Kunlun and its multimillion-dollar illegal cargo, and from Malaysia that the Viking may have left already.

Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Global

Christopher Pala, a former New York Times contributor covering the Pacific and Central Asia, now lives in Washington, DC.

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