Real-life crime thriller shines spotlight on fish poaching

catching the thunderReview: Vivien Horler

Catching the Thunder – the race to save our oceans from poachers and criminal kingpins, by Eskil Engdal & Kjetil Saeter (Tafelberg)

Patagonian toothfish is a deepsea delicacy often called “white gold”. It lives in icy waters near the Antarctic, in black depths of up to 2000m.

It was first caught and described at the end of the 19th century, and then forgotten until rediscovered in the 1980s. The Norwegian authors of this gripping real-life thriller say that served in US restaurants, it caused a gastronomic sensation.

The flavour is said to resemble a mixture of lobster and scallops, and a British restaurant critic, believed to be AA Gill, wrote: “It is seriously endangered, so you’d better eat as much as you can while stocks last.”

His environmental awareness is shared by scores of fishing boat owners, captains and others who can make a princely living from the fish. Some are caught legally; many more are poached and sold for millions of dollars.

The fishing operations are perilous, taking place in some of the globe’s most inhospitable seas. Hundreds of lives have been lost in shipwrecks and accidents. South Africans will remember the 1998 loss of the Sudur Havid, a legal South African toothfish trawler that went down in a winter storm off the island of South Georgia with the loss of 17 lives.

Catching the Thunder is about the 2014-2015 hunt for a Spanish-owned toothfish poacher by Bob Barker, a ship owned by the Sea Shepherd conservation society. It describes the five-month chase of the Thunder by Swedish captain Peter Hammarstedt and his intrepid crew, from the freezing waters of Antarctica south of Tasmania, up towards the Mozambique Channel, then around the Cape and up the West Coast of Africa.

The Thunder had been poaching for more than 10 years, and is believed to have earned its owner more than 60 million euros.

But the Thunder is not the only wanted poacher. Hammarstedt is also after five other members of a pirate fleet he calls “The Bandit 6” – six battered trawlers and longline fishing vessels that have been catching and selling toothfish for years. All six have been blacklisted by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

Some of the poachers have been operating since 2003.

Authorities in Australia, Indonesia, South Africa and various European countries including Norway and Spain, as well as Interpol, are interested in the halting the poachers, but their provenance is hard to untangle, which means prosecutions often falter.

Many of the ships sail under dodgy foreign flags, others have frankly fake papers. Or as the authors write: “The Thunder’s journey was concealed by layer upon layer of lies and conspiracy. The ship was assisted and protected by anonymous agents, insurance companies, banks, corrupt (civil) servants and flag states that wanted their cut of the poaching revenue.” Four of the Bandit 6 fly the flag of landlocked Mongolia.

The battle against the poachers of toothfish and other species is not simply a conservation issue, important as that is. In 2008 a Spanish ship owner was arrested for smuggling more than two tons of cocaine from Uruguay to Spain. The cocaine, with a street value of 70million euros, was hidden in containers of frozen fish.

“The case proved what the police commissioners in Madrid had long suspected: the fish and shellfish industry was being used both as a distribution channel for narcotics and to launder the profits.”

Norwegian authorities investigated poaching and discovered “fisheries crime was just as serious, cynical and cunning as human trafficking, narcotics and arms smuggling. The backers forged ships’ documents and catch protocols, laundered money, bribed port authorities and hired crews on slave contracts”.

Or as South African-born Antarctic legend Professor Denzil Miller, now based in Australia, tells the authors: “This is not about catching some fish. It is world-wide, organised crime… ”

This is a fascinating and sobering read that in places will have you unable to put it down. Or as local conservationist and author Don Pinnock says on the cover shout: “…reads like a gripping crime novel, but it’s all real.”

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on May 6.

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