How the Infamous Kunlun Fishing Ship Met Its Demise
Pew helped Interpol create a network for sharing information among nations fighting illegal fishing—and halted a ship’s infamous career.
For more than a year, a rusting, hulking 157-foot fishing boat has sat at anchor amid the buzz of activity in Dakar, Senegal’s main harbor. Known under various names but mostly as the Kunlun, the vessel is to many a symbol of the size and secretiveness of illicit fishing—and of the innovations by law enforcement and environmentalists to dent the global trade.
The Kunlun is one of six fishing ships known as the “Bandit 6,” which Interpol and officials in New Zealand and Australia say took advantage of loose fisheries laws and uncoordinated enforcement efforts to ply the Antarctic’s Southern Ocean for nearly two decades in search of toothfish, operating at a near-industrial scale with nets stretching 40 miles. Found on restaurant menus as Chilean sea bass, the mottled gray bottom feeder fetches as much as $15 a pound, making it one of the most lucrative products of the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing market, with an estimated annual value of $23 billion.
The ships were the most notorious of the hundreds of vessels that Interpol says were operating illegally in Southern Ocean waters, catching—according to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources—as much as 2,000 tons of toothfish a year. Starting around 2006, Australia and New Zealand began aggressively cracking down on the ships operating within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). That forced the vessels into international waters, where treaties allow authorities to board ships only to verify their identity and confirm that the country whose flag they are flying had given them permission to fish where they were.
Authorities, including Gary Orr, a compliance manager with New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, say they knew that the Bandit 6 vessels frequently changed their names and the countries where they claimed to be registered, making them especially elusive. Several years ago, both New Zealand and Australia began launching patrols on the high seas. “We were all operating in isolation,” says Orr. “And none of us were having success at all.”
That began to change, though, when Project Scale was launched four years ago. The Interpol initiative, developed and funded by the international police organization, the government of Norway, and The Pew Charitable Trusts, is combating illegal fishing by helping countries analyze and exchange crucial information to fight this transnational crime. The project includes regional training in intelligence techniques and assistance with identifying the biggest criminal networks involved in the illegal fishing trade.
“Countries had been looking at this as an issue of national sovereignty,” says Deon Burger, an environmental security coordinator for Interpol. Now “we’re linking all of them, analyzing all of the information they collect, and bringing it back to the country to help move cases forward.”
Pew helped launch Project Scale as part of its global campaign to end illegal fishing, which accounts for 1 of every 5 fish taken from the sea each year. “The coordinated effort is able to provide round-the-clock assistance in criminal investigations and is changing the game for illegal fishers,” says Tony Long, who directs Pew’s campaign from London.
One sign of that game change? In April 2015, one of the Bandit 6, a Norwegian-built trawler called the Thunder, was off the West African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe being observed by a ship operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has spent decades fighting illegal activities in the oceans. The Sea Shepherd ship had been tracking the Thunder after Interpol issued an alert known as a purple notice to its 190 member countries seeking information on the fishing vessel’s whereabouts. Those on board the monitoring vessel say that as they watched, the Thunder began to take on water and its crew climbed into lifeboats. The ship sank, and the country’s authorities said at the time they believed the crew deliberately sabotaged it to hide evidence of illegal fishing. The Thunder’s captain and crew were rescued by the Sea Shepherd ship; the captain and two crewmen were later convicted by São Tomé and Príncipe of crimes related to the ship’s sinking and using fraudulent documents, for which they received sentences ranging from two years and nine months to three years and were collectively fined more than $15 million. They have not paid the fine but are serving their sentences.
Even as the Thunder slipped beneath the waves, authorities had leads on the other five ships—and were actively pursuing the Kunlun.
The Kunlun plied the waters off Antarctica, pursuing toothfish on a near-industrial scale. (© Sea Shepherd)
On Jan. 7, 2015, a New Zealand patrol boat, the Wellington, was patrolling near Mawson station in Antarctica when its crew spotted the Kunlun. Compliance manager Gary Orr says the patrol boat hailed the Kunlun, and that the crew responded that the vessel was operating under the flag of Equatorial Guinea. “We reached out to [that country’s maritime authority] on the spot,” says Orr, “and it confirmed it had no registered vessels in the region and authorized us to board.”
But, he adds, high waves and floating ice prevented the New Zealand authorities from boarding—and the Kunlun sailed away.
At New Zealand’s request, Interpol quickly issued an alert for the ship. A Sea Shepherd vessel, the Sam Simon, was in the region and located the Kunlun on Jan. 13. The Sam Simon’s captain, Siddharth Chakravarty, says his ship pursued the fishing boat for five days, traveling 900 miles and broadcasting its route, with the transmissions monitored by Project Scale’s team in Lyon, France.
An Australian patrol vessel, the Triton, soon joined the chase. John Davis, a senior compliance manager for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, says that on Feb. 27, near Australia’s Coco Islands, officers on the Triton boarded the Kunlun, took photos, and questioned the crew members but could not arrest them because the vessel was in international waters.
“Right from the outset, we closely monitored the situation. New Zealand is a strong ally, and we collectively don’t like it when boats are able to avoid us, so we band together,” says Davis.
As the Kunlun continued to sail, the Project Scale team was making projections on where it would head next. Based on its previous activity, the team estimated that Thailand was the likeliest destination.
That was right: A week later, the ship—now flying Indonesia’s flag with the name Taishan, one of at least 15 names Interpol determined it has used over the years—entered the port of Phuket. Thai port authorities say the crew declared that the ship carried grouper and unloaded it into containers that were to be moved to another port. Thai authorities—alerted by Australian officials to expect the Kunlun’s arrival—intercepted the containers and found that the 181 tons of frozen seafood was not grouper but toothfish. They seized the catch and confiscated the officers’ passports.
When Interpol heard the news, the Project Scale team assembled a strategy meeting at its offices in Singapore. Spain’s Guardia Civil, the country’s national police force, had determined that a Spanish conglomerate controlled by a single family owned the ship and others among the Bandit 6, and said it had tried to go after the company without significant success. The Project Scale team sifted through evidence—including photos and communications records—and provided it to Spanish investigators.
But as the Kunlun/Taishan languished in Phuket, Thai authorities, citing the high cost of refrigerating the 181 tons of toothfish, allowed the catch to be reloaded on the ship, and also allowed the ship to be partially refueled to power the onboard refrigeration equipment. During the night of Sept. 7, Thai officials reported that the ship vanished from port.
The chase was on—again. Based on the ship’s past movements and estimates of how much fuel the ship had left, Interpol alerted officials in Senegal and a handful of other West African countries. Sure enough, Interpol says that two months later, in the middle of the night on Nov. 28, the ship—now called the Asian Warrior and flying the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines—pulled into the harbor in Dakar.
But seizing the catch wouldn’t be easy: Because Senegal has a shortage of inspectors and conducts port inspections only during the day, the crew managed to load the fish onto another small vessel and flee before local authorities could intervene, says Cheikh Fall, head of the inspection and control division of the country’s National Agency for Maritime Affairs.
Senegalese officials suspected that the Asian Warrior, still in port but without its cargo, was the Kunlun, but they had to be sure—and Project Scale’s cooperative network again came into play. The African authorities studied photos of the Kunlun taken by Australian officials on the Triton when they had boarded the fishing vessel nine months earlier. Two details from the photos matched the ship in the Dakar port: a missing light on the ship’s tower and a strip of rust down one side of its hull.
Fall contacted Interpol, which dispatched two officers, joined by Spanish authorities, who also traveled to Dakar. That team gathered even more evidence: a bell carried the name Dorita, another of the names the Kunlun was known to have used, and documents on the ship appeared to indicate that its registry certificate had been falsified.
“It was the kind of assistance that Senegal has been looking for,” says Fall, whose country’s legitimate fishermen have seen stocks depleted by illegal fishing. “We don’t all have the means to monitor our EEZ, and our fishers have become more impoverished because of this.”
The Kunlun was spotted fishing illegally in waters off Antarctica after an alert from Interpol helped locate the ship. (© CCAMLR)
The evidence was enough for civil authorities in Spain to move against members of the Vidal family, which government prosecutors say founded the company that operated the Kunlun and several other vessels in the Bandit 6. In March 2016, Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fish, Food, and Environment fined family members and a total of seven companies linked to the family €17.8 million, the largest such fine ever imposed in the European Union, and banned the Vidals from fishing with the ships. The Vidal family has denied any involvement in illegal fishing and has appealed the ruling to a special administrative court.
The ruling was a success for Interpol and its allies in a year in which authorities also captured the remaining Bandit ships in an enforcement effort that included 15 nations cooperating through Project Scale.
Meanwhile, Interpol officials helped track down the small ship that they believed had spirited away the Kunlun’s fish from Dakar. It was eventually found in Vietnam, where DNA tests confirmed that the catch was the missing toothfish. That evidence helped Spanish criminal authorities charge the Vidal family with environmental crimes, money laundering, falsification of documents, and criminal conspiracy—charges that Spain’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2016 didn’t apply because the fishing was conducted in international waters by a vessel not flying a Spanish flag. Oceana and Greenpeace have appealed that decision.
Although the criminal charges were dropped, the fine remains in effect, as does the ban on the company using the remaining ships. The Project Scale team considers the mission a success, with the Kunlun and the rest of the Bandit 6 now out of business.
“The Vidals’ holdings are broken,” says Miguel Ángel Pacheco, a Guardia Civil officer who specializes in environmental crimes. He says only one family member is still operating a vessel on the high seas—with a legal fishing license—off Mauritania. The rest are fishing in Spanish and European waters. Orr, the New Zealand fishing official, says the high-seas chase and the evidence-sharing that accompanied it are perfect examples of the project’s effectiveness—and the cooperation and communication it has created among the many nations fighting illegal fishing.
“Now I can pick up the phone and ring” authorities in other nations easily, Orr says. “Before, illegal fishermen had little risk of being caught—or if they [were], could bribe someone. The illegal fishing fleet is getting smaller and smaller as we do this work.”
That shows that Project Scale is paying off, says Pew’s Tony Long. “It provides a way for countries to tackle fisheries crimes that cross national boundaries,” he says. “And it’s always at work.”