Storming the Thunder

For 110 days and across two seas and three oceans, crews stalked a fugitive fishing ship considered the world’s most notorious poacher.

By Ian Urbina

Aboard the Bob Barker, in the South Atlantic—As the Thunder, a trawler considered the world’s most notorious fish poacher, began sliding under the sea a couple of hundred miles south of Nigeria, three men scrambled aboard to gather evidence of its crimes.

In bumpy footage from their helmet cameras, they can be seen grabbing everything they can over the next 37 minutes—the captain’s logbooks, a laptop computer, charts and a slippery 200-pound fish. The video shows the fishing hold about a quarter full with catch and the Thunder’s engine room almost submerged in murky water. “There is no way to stop it sinking,” the men radioed back to the Bob Barker, which was waiting nearby. Soon after they climbed off, the Thunder vanished below.

It was an unexpected end to an extraordinary chase. For 110 days and more than 10,000 nautical miles across two seas and three oceans, the Bob Barker and a companion ship, both operated by the environmental organization Sea Shepherd, had trailed the trawler, with the three captains close enough to watch one another’s cigarette breaks and on-deck workout routines. In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

Industrial-scale violators of fishing bans and protected areas are a main reason more than half of the world’s major fishing grounds have been depleted and by some estimates over 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish have vanished. Interpol had issued a Purple Notice on the Thunder (the equivalent of adding it to a Most Wanted List, a status reserved for only four other ships in the world), but no government had been willing to dedicate the personnel and millions of dollars needed to go after it.

A map of the Thunder chase route

So Sea Shepherd did instead, stalking the fugitive 202-foot steel-sided ship from a desolate patch of ocean at the bottom of the Earth, deep in Antarctic waters, to any ports it neared, where its crews could alert the authorities. “The poachers thrive by staying in the shadows,” Peter Hammarstedt, captain of the Barker, said while trying to level his ship through battering waves. “Our plan was to put a spotlight on them that they couldn’t escape.”

The pursuit of the Thunder until its sinking in April, pieced together from radio transmissions, interviews, ship records and reporting on board the Bob Barker and its fellow ship, the Sam Simon, demonstrates the anything-goes nature of the high seas, where weak laws and a lack of policing allow both for persistent criminality and, at times, bold vigilantism.

Illegal fishing is a global business estimated at $10 billion in annual sales, and one that is thriving as improved technology has enabled fishing vessels to plunder the oceans with greater efficiency. While countries, with varying degrees of diligence, typically patrol their own coastlines, few ever do so in international waters, even though United Nations maritime regulations require them to hold vessels flying their flags accountable for illicit fishing.

That leaves room for organizations like Sea Shepherd, which describes itself as an eco-vigilante group, flies a variation of the Jolly Roger on its ships and often cites the motto, “It takes a pirate to catch a pirate.” In chasing the Thunder, Sea Shepherd’s goal was not just to protect a rapidly disappearing species of fish, its leaders said, but to show that flagrant violators of the law could be brought to justice.

Maritime lawyers question whether the group has legal authority for its actions—ranging from cutting nets and blocking fishermen to ramming whaling vessels—but Sea Shepherd claims its tactics are necessary. So do some Interpol officials.

“They’re maritime skip tracers,” one Interpol official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to reporters. “And they’re getting results.”

Banned since 2006 from fishing in the Antarctic, the Thunder had been spotted there repeatedly in recent years, prompting Interpol to issue an all-points bulletin on it in December 2013. The vessel was described as the most egregious of the ships then on its Purple Notice list, collecting over $76 million from illicit sales in the past decade, more than any other ship, according to agency estimates. The Thunder’s prime catch was toothfish, more popularly called Chilean sea bass, known on docks as “white gold” because its fillets often sell for $30 a plate or more in upscale restaurants in the United States.

The Thunder’s status as a fugitive hardly slowed it down. By keeping its locational transponder turned off, it could fish and then slip in and out of ports undetected. The ship’s name and port registry, which have changed more than a half-dozen times, were not painted on its hull, the typical practice, but on a metal sign hung from its stern. (Sailors call such signs “James Bond license plates” because they can be easily swapped out.) In March, the Thunder was stripped of its registration by Nigeria and became officially stateless, which meant that marine authorities from any country could board and arrest its crew.

“Sea Shepherd is doing what no one else will,” said Peter Whish-Wilson, an Australian senator. “The urgency of this problem has grown,” he added, “but the government response, from all governments really, has fallen.”

On its second day of prowling for the Thunder last December, the Barker spotted its prey. Appearing first as a red blip on an otherwise barren radar monitor, the vessel was moving slowly, at 6 knots, and heading against the tide of floating icebergs, some the size of tall buildings.

Captain Hammarstedt sailed within 400 feet of the Thunder before reaching for a reference binder—an Interpol “mug shots” guide featuring silhouettes of illegal fishing vessels. He radioed the Thunder’s officers, most of them Spaniards or Chileans. Speaking through a translator, he warned that the Thunder was banned from fishing in those waters and would be stopped.

The Thunder responded: “No, no, no. Negative, negative. You have no authority to arrest this vessel. You have no authority to arrest this vessel. We are going to continue sailing, we are going to continue sailing but you have no authority to arrest this ship, over.”

“We do have authority,” the Bob Barker said. “We have reported your location to Interpol and to the Australian police.”

The poachers replied, “O.K., O.K., you can send our location, but you can’t board this ship, you can’t come in or arrest us.”

The Thunder’s crew, which had been working on its aft deck, abruptly disappeared inside. The ship (a trawler that had been converted to do other types of deep-sea fishing) soon doubled its speed and made a run for it, the Barker close behind. They were in a stretch of Antarctic sea called the Banzare Bank, known among mariners as “The Shadowlands” because it is among the planet’s most remote and inhospitable waters, nearly a two-week journey to the nearest major port.

On that first night of the chase, Dec. 17, Captain Hammarstedt made a note in his ship’s log: “Bob Barker will maintain hot pursuit and report on the F/V Thunder’s position to Interpol.”

While the Bob Barker chased the Thunder, the Sam Simon tracked another vessel wanted by Interpol, a ship called the Kunlun, eventually causing its captain to disembark in Phuket, Thailand, where it remains. The Simon also spotted another toothfish netter called the Yongding, which was soon detained as well.

The Thunder, though, was the top prize. When the Bob Barker began pursuing the vessel, the Sam Simon’s initial job was to remain in the Banzare Bank and pull up the 45 miles of illegal net that the Thunder left behind, evidence for a possible prosecution.

Hauling the nets was dangerous. The Sam Simon’s deck was slippery, cluttered and partly frozen. The ship’s side walls were low. Tripping was easy. Marbled with slush, the polar water below was so cold that to fall would likely have meant death not by drowning but from cardiac arrest.

Consumer demand for toothfish skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s after a Los Angeles-based seafood wholesaler decided to rename the oily fish Chilean sea bass to make it more appealing to the American market. An ugly bottom dweller, found only in the earth’s coldest waters, the toothfish can grow over six feet long and weigh more than 250 pounds. The rebranding worked a little too well. More fishing boats targeted toothfish, and now some scientists say that its population is disappearing at an unsustainable rate, though it is unclear how fast.

The fish that the Sam Simon’s crew were pulling on board had been trapped underwater in the nets and were starting to decompose. With gas building up inside the carcasses, some of the fish exploded as they slammed onto the deck. Many members of the crew, most of them vegans, cried or vomited.

Gillnets, like those used by the Thunder, are dropped to the sea floor and form mesh walls sometimes many miles long. The nets are illegal in many parts of the world because they are undiscerning. For every four sea creatures netted by the Thunder, for instance, only one was a toothfish. The rest were thrown back to the sea, most of them dead.

Just before 6 a.m. on Jan. 3, Capt. Siddharth Chakravarty, a 32-year-old Indian who had previously worked on chemical tankers, headed to bed. About 20 minutes after he fell asleep, the Sam Simon’s crew called his cabin. “We need you on the bridge,” the voice said. “It’s urgent.”

He arrived to find his first mate, Wyanda Lublink, at the helm. Ms. Lublink, a no-nonsense former Dutch Navy commanding officer, pointed out the window at an iceberg—about seven stories tall, roughly a half-mile across—rapidly approaching the ship’s back deck.

“What are you waiting for?” Captain Chakravarty asked.

“We have time,” one of the officers replied.

“No, we don’t,” the captain said. Though the iceberg was still about a mile away, the wind was pushing it faster toward the ship, whose engines, which were turned off to save fuel, required about 20 minutes to warm up.

“Clear the aft deck, now!” Captain Chakravarty ordered. “Start the engine immediately.”

Eighteen minutes later, about 50 feet from impact, the Sam Simon shoved through the pack ice, just barely avoiding the iceberg.

By late February, the Simon made its way to Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, where Captain Chakravarty met with Interpol and the local authorities.

Fishing boat captains have their superstitions, sweet spots and, in gillnetting, their signature style—distinguished by knot ties, net grids and rope splicing. Familiar with the unique characteristics of nets from the Thunder, Captain Chakravarty ticked off a 72-point list for the investigators. Before leaving, he handed over some of the Thunder’s nets. He took the rest of them, having been warned that they might be sold on the black market.

Built in 1969 in Norway, the Thunder had many names over the years (Vesturvón, Arctic Ranger, Rubin, Typhoon I, Kuko, and Wuhan N4) and was registered to fly the flag of as many countries (Britain, Faroe Islands, Seychelles, Belize, Togo, Mongolia and most recently, Nigeria).

During its final months, the ship’s crew included 40 men—30 Indonesians, the Spanish officers and the captain, Alfonso R. Cataldo, 48, a Chilean.

Some maritime records cite the Thunder’s operators as a Panama-registered company called Trancoeiro Fishing, but ownership is a mystery, shrouded by shell companies from Seychelles, Nigeria and Panama. Trancoeiro Fishing did not respond to requests for comment. Contacted through their families, three of the ship’s officers declined to comment, while others, including the captain, could not be reached.

After being spotted in Antarctica, the Thunder bolted north toward the “Furious Fifties” and “Roaring Forties,” a perilous strip of latitudes spanning the Southern and Indian Oceans. Winds there routinely top 70 miles per hour in storms. Waves reach 60 feet tall.

The Barker’s Captain Hammarstedt, 30, a baby-faced Swede, was respected by his crew for his seafaring skills and calm under fire. A decade of antiwhaling work had exposed him to a fair share of angry storms and violent confrontations. Still, he worried as he prepared to follow the Thunder into a huge low-pressure zone.

As the wider, heavier Thunder held firm over the next two days in the storm, the Bob Barker swayed back and forth, listing 40 degrees as it was battered by 50-foot waves. Below deck, fuel sloshed in the Barker’s tanks, splashing through ceiling crevices and filling the ship with diesel fumes. In the galley, a plastic drum tethered to the wall broke free, coating the floor in vegetable oil that bled into the cabins below. Half the crew was seasick. “It was like working on an elevator that suddenly dropped and climbed six stories every 10 seconds,” Captain Hammarstedt recalled.

Emerging on the other side of the storm, the ships settled into several days of radio silence. As much a battle of wills, this endurance race was also a test of fuel capacities. While the Barker never left the Thunder’s trail, the Sam Simon split off several times to resupply. Each time the two vessels moved close enough to connect a refuel hose, the Thunder turned 180 degrees and sped toward them, wedging between them to disrupt the effort.

On Feb. 7, tensions erupted. After the Thunder threw out fishing nets, Captain Hammarstedt tried blocking the ship’s path. The Thunder responded by charging toward the Barker. Captain Hammarstedt immediately pulled his throttle into reverse, avoiding a collision by about one yard.

The next day, the Thunder’s deckhands began preparing their nets, with officers radioing beforehand to alert the Barker that they intended to fish. “If you do, we will cut your nets,” Captain Hammarstedt threatened.

Moments later, as the Thunder’s mesh hit the water, he gave his crew the go-ahead. They began lifting and cutting the buoys, causing the nets to sink. Captain Cataldo, on the Thunder, exploded.

“You are taking our buoys!” he said over the radio. “That is illegal. We are coming.”

The Barker responded that it had seized the fishing gear as evidence of a crime.

“We are coming next to you to get our buoys,” the Thunder’s captain replied angrily. “You have to give them back.” Shortly after, he added: “You started this war.”

Turning the chaser into the chased, the Thunder headed full throttle at the Bob Barker, which fled, its crew delighted that their adversary was wasting fuel. Three hours later, the Thunder’s captain returned to his original course.

Though its ships are unarmed, Sea Shepherd is not averse to confrontation. The group is best known for its antiwhaling campaigns, which have included ramming Japanese vessels. Some critics dismiss its work—depicted on “Whale Wars,” the Animal Planet television show—as counterproductive publicity stunts.

Headquartered in Amsterdam, Sea Shepherd spent more than $1.5 million chasing the Thunder, and it has a fleet of five large ships, a half-dozen fast inflatables, a crew of more than 120 and units in more than a dozen countries, including the United States.

Much of its money is donated by celebrities, including Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot and Martin Sheen. The Bob Barker, currently flagged in the Netherlands, is named after the former host of the American television game show “The Price Is Right,” who gave $5 million to buy the ship in 2010. The Sam Simon, which also flies a Dutch flag, was bought in 2012 for more than $2 million, largely funded by, and named for, a creator of the television show “The Simpsons.”

Captain Hammarstedt said he draws the legal authority for actions like confiscating the Thunder’s nets from a provision in the United Nations World Charter for Nature that calls on nongovernmental groups to assist in safeguarding nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Several maritime lawyers and international policy experts, though, said that obstructing fishing vessels and confiscating their gear is probably illegal. “But no one would prosecute this because it pales in comparison to what the Thunder was doing,” said Kristina Gjerde, an expert on high seas policy based at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a coalition of nonprofit groups and government agencies working on global maritime and environmental oversight. “Sea Shepherd knows this.”

Two months into the chase, having reached heavy seas in the Indian Ocean about 400 miles southeast of South Africa, the Thunder sat high in the water, indicating that it had burned through much of its fuel.

The Simon and the Barker saw an opportunity and put five of their crew members in a small skiff. They carried a black trash bag with 10 16-ounce plastic bottles, caps wrapped in yellow tape. Inside each bottle was a note written in an Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, a message intended for the Thunder’s crew.

“We have no intentions of putting you in trouble,” the 450-word note said. “We should work together.”

Pulling within range, the Sea Shepherd’s crew began throwing the bottles onto the Thunder’s deck. Moments later, a man appeared on the upper deck wearing a black ski mask. He hurled a chain that splashed into the water a couple of inches from the skiff’s twin outboard motors. Next, he threw a round metal tube, about the size of a roll of duct tape, that hit one of the Sea Shepherd’s crew members, forcing a retreat.

The distress call came at 6:39 a.m.

“Assistance required, assistance required,” the Thunder’s captain pleaded over the radio. “We’re sinking.” The Thunder had collided with something, he said, possibly a cargo ship. “We need help.”

The Sea Shepherd officers were shocked. While they noticed some commotion on the Thunder, there was no hint of a collision. Still, they quickly agreed that the more spacious Sam Simon would take the Thunder’s crew on board. Captain Chakravarty called a meeting on his bridge. “We’re outnumbered two to one,” he warned. “This is very dangerous for us.”

Everyone was to change out of shorts and T-shirts and into uniform, he instructed. The guests were to be escorted on bathroom visits. There would be two-man watches from the upper deck at all times. No one was to ask any questions about fishing. “This is strictly a rescue operation now,” he said.

At 12:46 p.m. on April 6, the Sam Simon’s log noted of the Thunder: “Going down very fast.” By then, the trawler’s crew had moved into their rescue boats. Meanwhile, three Barker crewmen were climbing on board in hopes of salvaging evidence.

“I’m giving you 10 minutes,” Captain Hammarstedt said in a radio call to his men.

After grabbing binders, charts and computers from the bridge, they headed to the engine room, finding it almost completely submerged. In the galley, a defrosting chicken sat on the table.

Climbing down into the fish hold, Anteo Broadfield, an Australian serving as second mate, quickly became lightheaded. The air there was too thin, the refrigeration fumes too thick. Helmet camera footage shows hundreds of white plastic bags—stacks of wrapped fish (just “trunks,” their heads, tails and guts removed). “You need to go now,” the Barker radioed. Straining, the men lifted out one of the heavy fish bags before returning to their skiffs.

Once on the Sam Simon, the Thunder’s officers were surly and untalkative. “Estupido!” one of them yelled, lunging at a Sea Shepherd photographer who was taking their pictures.

Captain Chakravarty contacted the nearest port officials in São Tomé and Príncipe, the small island nation off the coast of West Africa, and arranged for the police and Interpol officials to meet them.

On arrival, the Thunder’s senior crew members were arrested. In July, three officers were charged with a variety of counts, including pollution, negligence and forgery. Several other governments, including that of Spain, are considering charges against the ship’s owners for illegal fishing and perhaps other crimes, including money laundering and tax evasion, according to the Interpol official who discussed the case on the condition of anonymity.

But losing the ship—and the evidence that went down with it, including the fish in the hold, onboard computers, various records and fishing equipment—makes prosecution more difficult, Interpol and Sea Shepherd officials acknowledge.

While relieved that the Thunder is no longer in action, the Sea Shepherd’s crew members, along with law enforcement authorities, are suspicious about how the great chase ended. No other vessels had been near the Thunder before it sank, and its cabin doors were tied open rather than sealed shut to keep water out. That suggested the $5 million ship might have been intentionally scuttled, possibly to avoid being seized by the police, according to the authorities in São Tomé and Príncipe and Sea Shepherd officials.

The Sam Simon crew remembered something else. As their ship carried the Thunder’s crew back to land, Captain Cataldo climbed onto a five-foot-high stack of his confiscated nets on the back deck. Stretching out, he went to sleep.

But just before that, as the Thunder finally sank, he had pumped his fist and cheered.