On the trail of the sea bass pirates: High stakes on the high seas

Date: July 21, 2015

Source: Los Angeles Times
Author: Jonathan Kaiman

Four Thai customs agents in a gunmetal-gray speedboat slowly circle a decrepit fishing vessel, its huge white hull streaked with filth and rust.

Anchored a mile off this resort island’s southern coast, it towers over them like a ghost ship. A man in sunglasses appears behind the bridge’s windows. The government agents squint to make him out.

The government has forbidden the 625-ton boat to set sail, but it has also ordered the agents not to board. So they continue to circle — and stare.

“We can’t figure out where the Kunlun came from,” Phuket customs chief Charoen Chamniklang says later.

What they can figure out is that the Kunlun — one of many names the ship has used — is suspected of holding some $5 million worth of illicit “Chilean sea bass,” a fish that is neither bass nor necessarily from Chile but is valuable enough to be at risk of overfishing.

And it isn’t the first time, nor apparently the last.

For decades, overfishing has depleted global fishing stocks and threatened the existence of entire species. International organizations have made headway in recent years with regulations that rein in the most rapacious practices, such as fishing with massive drift nets that ensnare everything in their path.

But in many parts of the world, especially little-patrolled stretches of the remotest ocean, pirates continue to operate — using rust-bucket vessels and a shifting assortment of national flags, and catching protected fish with banned equipment.

To combat them, environmental organizations and law enforcement authorities engage in high-stakes cat-and-mouse games on the high seas. Before its arrival in Thailand, the Kunlun had led pursuers on an epic, 900-mile chase.

Now, anchored in the turquoise water off Phuket, the ship’s operators were making one thing clear: They weren’t going to make this easy.

Siddharth Chakravarty says he first encountered the Kunlun on an overcast January day on a remote stretch of the Antarctic Ocean that he calls the “Shadowlands,” international waters about 2,400 miles southwest of Australia.

Many commercial fishermen consider the choppy, iceberg-dotted waters forbiddingly dangerous. But the ocean teems with Arctic toothfish, one of two species (along with Patagonian toothfish) that is marketed under the more appealing name of Chilean sea bass. Chakravarty, an energetic Indian environmentalist, was there to stake out any unauthorized fishing boats seeking to harvest the fish.

Chakravarty, 32, is a volunteer captain for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nongovernmental organization based on Washington state’s San Juan Island. The group’s mission, according to its website, is to take “direct action” against “illegal activities on the high seas.”

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