The high seas begin 370 km from a nation’s shore and because it’s difficult for governments and organizations to patrol and police these waters, it’s the perfect place for pilfering the best the ocean has to offer while damaging fish stocks and marine ecosystems. At Hakai Magazine, Sarah Tory reports on the hunt for STS-50 — alias Andrey Dolgov, alias Sea Breeze, alias Ayda — a notorious longliner whose captain and crew had evaded and escaped capture to loot the seas of $50 million in fish over a ten year period.
The STS-50 was a 452-tonne, 1980s-era former longliner originally from Japan. It was well known in maritime circles…for poaching Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish (also called Chilean sea bass), two lucrative cod species from the Southern Ocean. Authorities believe the STS-50 operated illegally for 10 years or so and looted up to $50-million worth of the fish, which can grow to 120 kilograms and live for 60 years. Interpol had issued a purple notice for the vessel—an international request for information about the STS-50’s criminal activity. But the vessel’s owners and captain had been evading authorities for years with a typical bag of tricks: registering the boat to nations with lax rules; using shell companies to obscure ownership; forging documents; and spoofing the most advanced satellite surveillance.
Vessels that fish illegally are often involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling while contributing to plummeting fish stocks and degraded marine ecosystems. Experts estimate that up to 20 percent of the world’s total catch (fish and other marine fauna) falls under illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. That’s more than 23 million tonnes of seafood stolen from the seas annually—or one out of every five wild-caught fish sold on the market—worth $23.5-billion.
Selling the illegally caught fish is relatively easy to get away with if port inspectors do a poor job of investigating the vessel, explains Peter Horn, the project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing program. All the captain has to do is misreport the catch, claiming for instance that the crew caught one type of fish when in fact it caught another; lie about the quantity of fish caught; or pretend to have fished in a different area. The end result is a market with so many illegally caught fish that “there’s a reasonable chance that you have inadvertently bought some,” Horn says.