The War on Pirate Fishing

Pirates are stealing your fish and destroying the ecosystems that sustain them, but some of the world’s fishing nations are fighting back.

Large boat with "Stolen fish" painted on it
Greenpeace activists paint “Stolen Fish” and occupy the cargo vessel Binar 4, full of fish taken illegally from Guinean waters. The Binar 4 is Chinese-owned under the convenience flag of Panama. Greenpeace photograph by Pierre Gleizes
By Ted Williams

Illegal, unreported and unreg-ulated fishing, more aptly called pirate fishing, is now a global problem. It trashes regional management plans and depletes all manner of species, including popular gamefish like tunas, billfish, mackerels, mahi, snappers and groupers along with the prey bases that support them. And it floods markets, undercutting honest fishermen. An estimated 20 to 33 percent of all marine fish caught around the globe are taken illegally, costing as much as $23.5 billion annually.

The US is the world’s leading importer of fish. Ninety percent of fish we consume comes from foreign markets.

Citizens of the West African nations of Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Liberia, Guinea and Ghana depend heavily on fish. But pirates, all from away and in large metal ships often tended by larger “reefer” (refrigerator) ships, smash the locals’ dugout canoes and destroy their nets. In some villages there’s a real threat of starvation.

In all temperate and tropical oceans—but especially in Somalia, Tuvalu, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea—pirates deploy giant, non-selective nets, wiping out entire schools of tuna, including juveniles, which they discard dead. Somalia alone loses about $300 million a year to pirate fishing.

Pirate vessels change names and flags of registry like squid change color. And when they’re not stealing fish, they frequently moonlight as smugglers. Human-rights abuses are rampant. For example, when the pirate vessel Sor Somboon 19 was forced to return to Thailand in January 2016, a Greenpeace team interviewed the Cambodian crewmen, finding victims of forced labor. Many were hospitalized, and some died from vitamin B1 deficiency.

Since pirates flout fishing laws, there’s little motivation for them to obey food-safety regulations. Investigations by the World Wildlife Fund, Oceana and others have determined that much of the illegal catch is tainted, falsely labeled and commingled with the US catch.

In the Gulf of Mexico the US Coast Guard and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report that vast fleets of “lanchas,” 20- to 30-foot-long outboard-powered skiffs, cross daily into US waters, unloading illegal aliens, drugs and guns, and then plundering red snapper; wahoo; king mackerel; sharks; mahi; and bluefin, blackfin and yellowfin tuna on the way back. According to both agencies, pirate lanchas are poaching almost a million pounds of red snapper a year, about as much as anglers catch off Texas.

“When those boats are seized, the fish are often put in the US market, if they’re fit for human consumption,” said Gib Brogan, fishery campaign manager for Oceana. That’s better than letting them rot, but it hurts our commercial fishermen.

Capt. Scott Sommerlatte, a well-known Gulf fishing guide and outdoor writer/photographer, chased the lanchas when he was with the Coast Guard out of Port Isabel, Texas. “These fleets would come over the line,” he said. “Once a Coast Guard helicopter or a charter boat saw them, they knew exactly how much time they had to get back across the border before we could reach them. We’d chase up to 12 boats at a time even though we knew we weren’t going to catch them. And they’d cross the line, shut down, look back and laugh at us.”

Piracy in the Gulf is getting worse. Now there are an estimated 1,138 lancha incursions annually. Texas game warden Capt. James Dunks told me: “For us, the Coast Guard and Air and Marine Operations [part of US Customs and Border Protection], it’s just an everyday battle trying to keep them from poaching. We’re catching more of them, but that’s only because there’s more pressure. When we arrest these guys, we ask them why they insist on fishing in our waters, and they flat out tell us it’s because they don’t have any fish left. For them it’s worth taking the chance of having their fish seized and their lanchas destroyed. They’re stealing our fish, taking them back to Mexico, then exporting them to the United States. It’s almost impossible to get an overcrowded jail to keep someone on a fishing violation. It’s cheaper just to send them back to Mexico. We take them straight to the judge, and he finds them guilty and time served because they don’t have a penny to their name.”

Capt. Siddharth Chakravarty of Sea Shepherd’s flagship the Steve Irwin with some of the many animals slaughtered by pirate driftnetters.
Photograph by Tim Watters, Sea Shepherd Global

Fishing nations and port and coastal states are receiving valuable assistance from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Greenpeace, Pew Charitable Trusts, World Wildlife Fund and Oceana. Consider the campaign against Patagonian toothfish pirates in sub-Antarctic oceans. Poaching there was so out of hand that the species was actually threatened with extinction. And along with toothfish, non-target fish and birds were taking horrendous hits. But with NGO help, the most notorious toothfish pirate vessels, known as the “Bandit 6”—Thunder, Viking, Kunlun, Perlon, Songhua and Yong Ding—have recently been captured. INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) and at least 15 nations worldwide had chased them for years.

The story of the Thunder’s demise gratifies every fish advocate who hears it. When sighted and pursued by Sea Shepherd’s vessel Bob Barker, Thunder dumped her illegal gillnets and fled. During the 110-day chase the pirates repeatedly tried to ram the Bob Barker and hurled grappling hooks and other metal objects at her Australian-based crew. On April 6, 2015, low on fuel and fearing capture by the Nigerian Coast Guard, the pirates opened Thunder’s hatches and scuttled her, then started cheering as she sank. Responding to their mayday signal, the Bob Barker picked them up.

The Viking, the last of the Bandit 6 to be taken out, had changed its name 13 times and its flags of registry 12 times. With help from Sea Shepherd, it was seized by the Indonesian Navy south of Singapore on February 25, 2016, and promptly blown up.

The Spanish pirate-fishing company Vidal Armadores (known as the “Galician Mafia”) is linked to four of the Bandit 6—Viking, Songhua, Yong Ding and Kunlun. Despite a long history of criminal fishing activity including 11 arrests, seven convictions, three confiscated vessels and international fines amounting to more than €3 million, Vidal family companies received close to €16 million in subsidies from the European Union and Spanish government.

In 2016 the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Spanish Federal Police and INTERPOL raided Vidal properties, seizing thousands of documents and arresting six Vidal family members. A civil case resulted in fines of €17.8 million, an end to company subsidies and a 25-year fishing ban.

But on December 27, 2016, the Spanish Supreme Court threw out the criminal case on grounds that Spain lacked jurisdiction to enforce fishing violations outside its waters and that therefore all connected crimes, such as money laundering by the Spanish nationals of Vidal Armadores, could not be prosecuted either. The bizarre ruling will likely set a precedent exploited by other pirates. While three Vidal Armadores-owned vessels remain in detention in Cabo Verde and Senegal, the owners—charged with criminal conspiracy, falsification of documents, environmental crimes and money laundering—have walked.

Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace have no authority to board vessels, but they keep wangling permission. Sometimes, perhaps because of language barriers, the pirates assume they do have authority. On September 9, 2015, crewmen from Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior boarded the Taiwanese longliner Shuen De Ching No. 888 near Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific, finding illegally taken shark fins. The shark bodies had been dumped.

“We reported this to the Taiwanese authorities, and their response was to retroactively permit the vessel,” declared Greenpeace Oceans Campaign director John Hocevar. “Being Greenpeace, we didn’t let it go. We hung a banner on the headquarters of the Fisheries Agency in Taipei, then held a press conference. There was a lot of media coverage that embarrassed the Fisheries Agency.”

This got the attention of the European Commission. In October 2015 it gave Taiwan a “yellow card,” a warning that the country was in danger of being identified as uncooperative in the fight against pirate fishing and that if remedial action wasn’t taken before April 1, 2017, it could face trade sanctions by the European Union. In response the Fisheries Agency imposed 15 strict regulations that took effect January 20, 2017.

Shark carcasses, with fins detached in apparent violation of the European Union’s Finning Ban, on the deck of the Spanish longliner F/V Alemar Primero.
Photograph by Alejandra Gimeno, Sea Shepherd Global

Pirates are getting smart, but fishing nations are getting smarter. Now regional fisheries managers are mandating use of IMO [International Maritime Organization] numbers—a seven-digit code that stays with the vessel from construction berth to breaker’s yard, so pirates have a harder time swapping names and flags.

In 2009 the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization framed the first treaty specifically designed to discourage pirate fishing. But the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), as it’s called, could not become international law until at least 25 nations had signed on. Prompt signing by the US inspired other nations. By June 5, 2016, the 25-nation threshold had been attained and surpassed.

Under the PSMA, participating nations must designate ports for use by foreign-flagged vessels, making control easier. If port officials have reason to suspect illegal activity, they have authority to inspect, impound or turn away a vessel. And PSMA signatories are obligated to share information about violations with other signatories.

The treaty makes piracy expensive. In the past, if pirates ran into or suspected trouble from one port, they’d simply move to the next. While that’s still possible, it’s now far more difficult. Pirates forced to remain at sea with their stolen fish face added costs for food and fuel; and they risk having their catch spoil.

so far 41 nations have
ratified the PSMA. Big-market players that have not include Japan, Russia, China and Thailand.

Ratification by Indonesia has been a major blow to piracy. A recent Greenpeace investigation of Thai fishing reveals that Indonesia’s crackdown on pirate fishing has fomented a mass exodus of Thai vessels to Papua New Guinea’s southern Dog Leg region between Australia and Indonesia. “Our findings,” Greenpeace reported in December 2016, “indicate that, over the last two years, Thailand’s overseas fishing fleets have repeatedly shifted their operations in response to improvements in monitoring, control, surveillance and enforcement efforts by flag, coastal and port states.”

Tony Long, who directs pirate-fishing enforcement for Pew, said, “The Pacific has the world’s largest tuna fishery. A lot of small-island developing states are seeing the value of port controls, and many are implementing measures similar to PSMA ahead of its ratification. What we want to do is bring everyone to the same minimum standards that drive information sharing.”

Similar progress is underway in the western Indian Ocean where, in a five-year-old program called FISH-i Africa, the countries of Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia and Tanzania are working together to combat pirate fishing with better enforcement and by sharing information. Last October Somalia, alerted by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, detained the Greko 1, a Belize-registered Panamanian pirate. Inspection by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources revealed 30 tons of stolen fish, forged licenses and banned trawling gear. When Greko 1 escaped and ran to Kenya, the Ministry alerted Kenyan authorities under FISH-i Africa protocol. Greko 1 was recaptured and fined $65,000.

“The PSMA isn’t a silver bullet,” Long said. “The PSMA can only help if we understand what vessels are doing out at sea. The technology allows us to see where these vessels are, using the vessel monitoring systems and transponders, and we need to make this the norm. Until now, it hasn’t been common enough.”

This new system, called AIS (Automatic Identification System) was designed for navigational safety, but it also discourages pirate fishing. A vessel’s transponder signals rebound from a satellite and are picked up by ground stations. Resulting triangulation allows controllers to monitor the vessel’s position, speed and direction.

In a paper titled “Ending Hide and Seek at Sea,” published in the March 11, 2016, issue of the journal Science, researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara reported how they used AIS data to watch fishing activity half a world away in a new marine sanctuary the size of California called the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Fishing vessels fled the sanctuary just before the Republic of Kiribati closed it on January 1, 2015. The study team reported one incursion to Kiribati officials, who detained and fined the offending vessel.

But AIS has a long way to go. As the paper’s lead author, Dr. Douglas McCauley, told the UC Santa Barbara Current, “Not enough vessels are using AIS transponders, and nobody observes whether they are kept on and used properly.”

On September 15, 2016, Oceana, SkyTruth (an NGO whose mission is to protect the environment by making more of it visible) and Google launched “Global Fishing Watch,” an online technology platform that allows any computer owner with Internet access to monitor and track commercial fishing vessels anywhere in the world.

This from Oceana’s Gib Brogan: “We get that information, feed it into the supercomputer at Google and build an algorithm that can tell a freighter from a bottom trawler and a bottom trawler from a longliner. The tool is up and running. Sitting on my couch, I can look at a boat that’s fishing, say, around the Falklands and see if it’s going into closed areas or engaging in suspicious behavior like transferring fish from one boat to another. They all have a certain pattern. Our goal is to match a boat with its catch and trace it all the way to the supermarkets so you can buy a fish with a tag on it and know when and where it was caught.

“Fishermen are starting to realize that transparency and traceability benefit them. About five years ago we started going to the Boston Seafood Show. No one wanted to talk about pirate fishing and mislabeling fish. The buzzword was ‘sustainability.’ Now when we go, every one of the big operators is traceable compliant.”

The US has powerful laws to combat pirate fishing. These include the Lacey Act, which makes it unlawful to sell, acquire or purchase illegally obtained fish, wildlife or plants that have been imported or exported; the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which mandates sustainability of our nation’s fisheries out to 200 nautical miles of land; and the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fisheries Enforcement Act of 2015, which allows sanctions on nations that fail to address pirate fishing and authorizes NOAA and the Coast Guard to seize pirate vessels and impose civil and criminal penalties on their operators.

men putting "stop pirate fishing" sign on boat
Greenpeace activists attach banner to the Russian-flagged pirate vessel Mumrinskiy.
Greenpeace Photograph by Klaas Wiersma

“Issues around illegal fishing don’t usually make it to the president’s desk,” said Michele Kuruc, who directs US ocean policy work for the World Wildlife Fund. “But in June 2014 President Obama announced that he wanted to close US borders to black-market fish, and he charged federal agencies to make it happen.”

This taskforce—chaired by State and Commerce and including 13 other federal agencies—hatched regulations that created the Seafood Import Monitoring Program. For now, at-risk fish like tunas, cod, mahi, grouper, red snapper, sharks and swordfish will be traced from where they were caught to entry into the US. Eventually the program will expand to all species.

“The plan is good,” Brogan said. “But loopholes are still there for mislabeling to get around regulations. Oceana would also like to see the information shared all the way to consumers.”

NOAA released the final rule December 8, 2016, giving the fishing industry one year to comply. (Since that date, the industry has rushed to collect information. In lots of cases the “fresh fish” you buy today was caught and frozen at least a year ago.)

Surprisingly, prospects for continued success in the war on pirate fishing may not dim under the new administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Protecting American business from foreigners, especially cheating foreigners, has been a Trump mantra. And the PSMA was one of the few pieces of legislation that both Republicans and Democrats liked and worked together on.

Finally, Trump’s sons are sportsmen who value fish and wildlife, and it may be that they can do something to educate their father. In fact, young Donald is an avid fly fisher who regularly pursues striped bass with one of my closest friends, a famous light-tackle guide to whom I’ll assign the pseudonym “Capt. Mort,” because he’s already swamped with requests to bend Don’s ear about all manner of issues.

Capt. Mort gave me this description of Don: “The guy is a hardcore fly fisher who cherishes his time on the water. And as such he has an innate respect for the resource . . . . He wants to see it protected and thrive just like the rest of us. Of course, who knows whether or not that translates to the policies of this administration.”

We can hope, my friend.


Ted Williams
About Ted Williams 665 Articles
Ted Williams is Fly Rod & Reel’s longtime Conservation Editor.

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