There was a curious confrontation between the New Zealand navy this month and three notorious boats illegally poaching in the waters near Antarctica. The Navy caught the boats red-handed poaching and using illegal nets. The Navy called over for the three rust buckets to stop the illegal operation and the boats simply refused. The Navy called over again that it wanted to board to check their documentation and the boats said know. They simply continued to poach in front of the Navy and then the New Zealanders let them leave without firing a shot. This was called a victory by the New Zealand Navy but I am not sure why.
There has been a devastating poaching market in Antarctica for Antarctic toothfish, marketed in North America as Chilean sea bass. These three ships have been at the heart of the poaching business — operating under false names and false flags in open defiance of international law. That is why it was a stroke of luck for the New Zealanders to catch these criminals between January 6th to January 13th. However, the Navy decided that the large swells made it too difficult to board the ship by force and allowed them to just slip away with their holds full of illegal fish — caught in front of the Navy. While the Navy is hoping to make it difficult for the ships to unload their catch, I still do not see how the Navy could let the Kunlun, the Songhua and the Yongding simply slip away rather than follow them. The ships have claimed North Korea, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Panama, Indonesia and Equatorial Guinea and the Kunlun has been called the Black Moon, the Galaxy and the Dorita. The only way to stop them is to follow and eventually board them and arrest the criminals. Fines clearly are not sufficient. In 2008, the Songhua was named the Paloma V, traced to a Spanish company, Vidal Armadores. In 2010, the company was fined 150,000 euros for participating in illegal fishing activities but the Navy believes that the company is still involved in the illegal trade.
I do not understand why the Navy could not follow or fire warning shots or disable the boats. The last option would seem to let these habitual offenders escape with holds full of illegal fish. I certainly agree that the Navy should not risk any lives with a forced boarding in bad seas, but I do not get why the three ships were allowed to escape from a faster and sturdier war ship. These crews (and the owners) need jail time and the responsible company needs to be put out of business. The brazen defiance shown in continuing to fish in front of the Navy shows the utter lack of deterrence for poachers. I do believe that the Navy gathered important evidence (and photos) and I contend New Zealand for pursuing these poachers. However, their film captured a serious disconnect between international law and its enforcement. These criminals are rational actors. They made a calculus of risk and found little real threat to their continuing to commit crimes in front of a war ship. This was an opportunity missed and, unless there is a change in the level of pursuit and force used against poachers, we will see the continued devastation of this area.