IUU fishing vessel Thunder has been spotted: what next?

The IUU Fishing Blog ends the year sharing the good news that the IUU fishing vessel Thunder has been sighted and may be close to being apprehended.

An Interpol Purple Notice was issued in December 2013 in respect of the Thunder, which is flagged to Nigeria. The vessel is sought by the governments of New Zealand, Australia and Norway for various fishery related infractions as well as possible fraud.

The Sea Shepherd Vessel Bob Barker

The Sea Shepherd Vessel Bob Barker

Thunder was spotted with its fishing gear deployed by none other than the SS Bob Barker. The Sea Shepherd flagship has been deployed to hunt poachers seeking to capture a regulated and highly prized species known as toothfish or Chilean bass in the Southern Ocean. Sea Shepherd activists are paying special attention to this small fish due to the temporary withdrawal of the Japanese whaling fleet following an order by the International Court of Justice.

Members of the Coalition of Legal Thoothfish Operators (COLTO) have welcomed the news and expressed gratitude to the captain of the SS Bob Barker, American Swede Peter Hammarstedt. The coalition is also supporting a call from member company Austral to the Nigerian government to de-register Thunder. This would render the vessel stateless, and its lack of diplomatic protection would make the process of apprehension by Norway, Australia or New Zealand much more straightforward.

Whilst the Bob Barker is poised to stalk the Thunder in the dangerous waters of the Southern Ocean, news have yet to emerge on whether any coastal guard or navy vessels from the countries associated with the publication of the Purple Notice are on their way.

Not everyone has welcomed the intervention of the Sea Shepherds: The Tasmanian Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies has been critical of the organisation. Comments made to The Mercury (Australia) seem to suggest that the Institute considers that the actions of SS could potentially endanger the Thunder’s apprehension.

We certainly hope officials are on their way to apprehend the Thunder, given its known location. The IUU vessel was discovered fishing with highly destructive fishing gear in an area of the high seas regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

The Institute purports that being outside of the Exclusive Economic Zone of any coastal State, the activities of Thunder are ‘unregulated’ rather than ‘illegal’ and that this places them beyond the administrative jurisdiction of coastal States for its current activities. At House of Ocean we dispute this view because, whilst Nigeria is not a member of CCAMLR, it is a party to the Fish Stocks Agreement. Hence, any activities carried out by their vessels in the CCAMLR management area that breach the organisation’s conservation measures should be considered illegal. The Thunder can and should be boarded and inspected by CCAMLR States, and communications with Nigeria should be ongoing to determine its fate. Further, Norway, Australia and New Zealand could still intervene with regard to the activities that induced the publication of the Purple Notice.

Neither the vessel nor its flag State are beyond the reach of other possible measures. These could include the Thunder being black-listed in ports and prevented from selling its fish, for example. As for Nigeria, it could find itself at the receiving end of enquiries in respect of its failure to control IUU fishing by vessels flying its flag. A large number of Nigerian fishing vessels are currently authorised to export catch to the EU, so Nigeria’s interests would not seem to be aligned with those who own and operate the Thunder.

We will certainly be watching the next steps with interest but, in the meantime, may we wish you all a very prosperous New Year.

Editor’s Note, 27 Dec 2014: 

We understand assertions have been made stating that the position of the Tasmanian Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies in this matter suggests they are being tolerant of fisheries illegality – we would like to clarify that we do not support such assertions in any way. The Institute’s work against IUU fishing speaks for itself ( http://www.imas.utas.edu.au ). Clearly, the Institute are entitled to take a view on the specific circumstances surrounding the identification of the Thunder by SS on the basis of their expertise and experience of Australian legal process and fisheries regulation, and to communicate such views to the press as they feel appropriate in order to foster constructive debate – something we fully support.