ReviewStory of Sea Shepherd’s epic high-seas hunt for poachers revealed in new book
One of Catching Thunder’s strongest points is that the authors – investigative journalists who accompanied the chasing vessel – track down players on each side, piecing together their testimonies on the 110-day chase
Catching Thunder: The Story of the World’s Longest Sea Chase
by Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter
The longest sea chase in recent history started in late December 2014. It would last for 110 days and 16,000km. Few on board the two vessels involved could have expected the ordeal ahead of them, or the way the chase would end.
This is the story told in Catching Thunder, by Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter, two Norwegian investigative journalists who accompanied the chasing vessel, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship Bob Barker. Engdal and Sæter have dedicated considerable time and resources to exploring the murky world of illegal fishing, particularly operations in Antarctic waters, which offer some of the most lucrative fish poaching in the world.
The area, an icy sea far outside the reaches of most countries and their navies, is an inhospitable region frequented only by research vessels and intrepid fishing boats. It is also home to the Patagonian toothfish, which some say is the best-tasting fish in the world.
Described in the book as a “petulant and repulsive giant that can grow to a weight of 120 kilograms and live more than 50 years”, the Patagonian toothfish (also known as the Chilean sea bass) is a “deep sea delicacy that can be just as profitable as narcotics or human trafficking”. In the wild west waters around the Antarctic, this makes it a tempting proposition.
In 2014, the Thunder, a notorious poaching vessel, was part of a group of ships known as the “Bandit 6”, which illegally fished Antarctic waters for years, earning their secretive owners tens of millions of dollars in the process. The Bob Barker, meanwhile, with its crew of 31, is part of Sea Shepherd, a more militant environmental group that grew out of Greenpeace – its flag bears the skull of a pirate flag, but with the crossbones replaced by a shepherd’s crook and a trident.
Sea Shepherd had previously been a thorn in the side of Japanese whalers. However, with whaling in decline, the group decided to home in on a new target: the Bandit 6.
These vessels included the Thunder, the Viking, the Kunlun, the Yongding, the Songhua and the Perlon – although each went by many names. They had been plundering the stock of Patagonian toothfish for years, gliding in and out of ports, mostly in Asia, to discharge their illegal cargos. While their officers were predominantly Spanish and South American, the deck crews were hired from Asian countries such as Indonesia.
This was what the Bob Barker and its 30-year-old Swedish-American captain, Peter Hammarstedt, were up against when they decided to take on the Thunder.
Sailing into frigid waters in search of their target, they watch the radar for telltale signs of slow-moving dots out of sync with the shifting icebergs. Within two days they have located the Thunder and, after an initial game of chicken through the pack ice, the boats settle in for a long chase, each wary of the other but unwilling to resort to extreme measures.
Catching Thunder is about more than just the pursuit of one ship, however. Its main focus is the years-long efforts to track these vessels and their mysterious owners on both sea and land. Beyond attempts to bring the ships’ owners to justice, the book explores the challenges involved in trying to police international waters far from populated areas.
These countries sell ship registration with few questions asked, offering legitimacy to owners who want to operate outside the law but scant ways to trace them. When an official at the Nigerian coastguard starts digging into the Thunder partway through the chase, he finds a confusing situation. The vessel has been registered in Nigeria four years earlier by a shipping agent using the address of a bankrupt amusement park in Lagos. The amusement park, once popular, is now inhabited by petty criminals and vagrants, with one corner used as a makeshift cemetery.
Following the money trail proves harder still, with the profits hidden in tax shelters and only a handful on board aware of the identities of their real bosses. Despite the lengths to which the owners go to hide their involvement, the trail eventually leads to Europe, to a region with a history of smuggling and involvement in the cocaine trade.
The authors take readers on a journey as they seek to come face-to-face with those profiting from poaching, and realise the challenges involved in bringing them to justice. One of the book’s strengths is that Engdal and Sæter track down players on both sides, telling the story from all angles. We get the experiences of the environmentalists, the officers on the fishing vessels, the Indonesian crews, and even of those involved in the operations on land.
When the Thunder begins to run out of fuel off the coast of the tiny island state of São Tomé and Principe, off the western coast of Africa, tension builds again with the fear of violence and the need to gather evidence before it vanishes.
This is a story to keep in mind next time you’re given the option of ordering Patagonian toothfish or Chilean sea bass in a restaurant.