The Big Catch

A relentless pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel

01 January 2016

On 31 March last year, hundreds of miles southeast off the coast of Nigeria, in the Gulf of Guinea, Siddharth Chakravarty sat at the helm of the Sam Simon, a 184-foot ship under his command. Chakravarty, a youthful-faced 32-year-old from Bhopal, was looking ahead at the Thunder—a 202-foot, steel-sided vessel, wanted by Interpol for illegal and unreported fishing. To the Sam Simon’s left was its slightly smaller companion ship, the Bob Barker. The two vessels had been pursuing the Thunder for over 100 days, across three oceans and more than 10,000 nautical miles.

The Sam Simon and the Bob Barker belong to Sea Shepherd, an international non-profit that works to protect marine wildlife. Sea Shepherd monitors and documents the activities of illegal fishing vessels, and reports them to authorities such as Interpol. The organisation has on occasion used controversially confrontational tactics, such as cutting poachers’ fishing nets.

Seafaring activists such as Chakravarty are vastly outnumbered by the criminals they oppose. Illegal fishing is one of the most profitable and prevalent maritime crimes. A 2015 statement by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing “is estimated to strip between $10 billion and $23 billion from the global economy.” This fishing undermines biodiversity, by killing protected species and threatening the balance of marine ecosystems. It can also deplete local fish stocks, jeopardising food security for people in certain regions. Because of a failure to allocate adequate resources, as well as jurisdictional grey areas in international waters, local and global authorities seldom arrest or prosecute illegal fishers. In the fight against such crimes, activists fill a crucial void in law enforcement—as Sea Shepherd did by pursuing the Thunder, in what proved to be the longest chase of an illegal fishing vessel in maritime history.

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    Selase Kove-Seyram is a multimedia producer and freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana. He is currently a member of the production team for Africa Investigates—an investigative documentary series on Al Jazeera English.

    Keywords: fishing ship illegal vessel coast ocean Siddharth Chakravarty Thunder Sam Simon sea Interpol Selase Kove-Seyram