/ 9 January 2015

Moz set to seize pirate fishing ship

Parliament has ignored an overwhelming number of submissions made by the public into the controversial Traditional Courts Bill.
Parliament has ignored an overwhelming number of submissions made by the public into the controversial Traditional Courts Bill.

Mozambique is set to detain a pirate ship loaded with millions of dollars of looted endangered marine species, that is believed to be headed for one of its ports.

National fishing director Ascensão Pinto said this week all major ports were on high alert after tip-offs that the notorious F/V Thunder, which has been looting fisheries in the Antarctic, planned to enter Mozambican waters.

Maritime law enforcement authorities have issued international alerts about the vessel, which they say is carrying tens of millions of dollars’ worth of illegally caught Patagonian toothfish and other species.

Sea Shepherd, a global nongovernmental marine anti-poaching organisation, seized two gill nets abandoned by the F/V Thunder crew near Australia last month. The organisation has since detailed a ship to tail the vessel across the oceans, and it set a world record this week for the longest chase of a poaching vessel.

“Thunder is the most wanted poaching vessel in Antarctica, a ship wanted by Interpol, and it is currently sitting southeast of Maputo, looking to make port somewhere to offload the illegal catch. We intend to escort them into any port they choose next,” said Peter Hammarstedt, skipper of the Sea Shepherd vessel tracking the pirate ship.

One of the gill nets confiscated from the pirate ship contained about 250 dead Patagonian toothfish, known as “white gold” because of the high prices they fetch on illegal markets since the collapse of cod fisheries in the 1990s. The contents of the other gillnet, which are banned in the Antarctic, are still being examined.

‘Purple notice’
In 2013 Interpol issued a “purple notice” asking member countries to help identify F/V Thunder’s location. The vessel was believed to be operating illegally in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where toothfish are a protected species.

“It is possible the owners of F/V Thunder have earned more than $60-million from its illegal fishing activities since it was blacklisted by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in February 2006,” Interpol said.

The commission has banned the use of vertical “wall-of-death” gill nets by F/V Thunder in the Antarctic, because of their indiscriminate killing. “The large number of dead animals we have found in the gill nets is proof of the widespread destruction the vessel has wreaked over its decade-long onslaught on the Southern ocean,” Sea Shepherd representative Sid Chakravarty told Australian journalists after the nets were confiscated.

The 11 000-tonne F/V Thunder was detained in Malaysia last year but was released with its catch after paying a fine of about R600 000. The vessel is sailing under a Nigerian flag and is owned by a company that is registered in Nigeria to protect the real owners, Hammarstedt claimed.

“Technically, Nigerian law applies to the vessel but it must abide by other national and international laws, depending on where they operate. Thunder was found fishing in a management area in the Antarctic, where it is not allowed to fish.”

Three different names and several flags
According to Interpol, during the past two years the vessel has operated under at least three different names and under several flags, to avoid detection.

Pinto said she had been alerted to the ship’s presence off the coast of Mozambique by Fish Africa, a network of seven countries that share information to combat illegal fishing in the western region of the Indian Ocean. Member countries include Tanzania and Mozambique.

In 2012, the Mozambican, South African and Tanzanian governments had established a platform to co-ordinate their efforts to fight piracy and other illicit activities on the high seas, she said.

“We sent out alerts to our principal ports at Maputo, Beira, Naçala, Quelimane and Pemba to reinforce their defence systems and to detain that ship if it approaches our waters,” she said. “We are aware that the ship is using the Nigerian flag and has been involved in illegal fishing.”

This week F/V Thunder was about 1 200 nautical miles off the coast and was cruising at about two knots, most likely to conserve fuel, said Hammarstedt.

“For the moment, Thunder seems intent on trying to ‘wait us out’. My concern is that when they run low on fuel, they will head to Mozambique,” he said. – oxpeckers.org

Luis Nhachote and Fiona Macleod are correspondents for the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalism