The Outlaw Ocean Podcast

Episode 2

The Dark Fleet


Peter Hammarstedt: Yeah. We have a visual on the boys. Thank you. Yeah.

Ian Urbina: Sea Shepherd, which is this vigilante ocean conservation organization that has a bunch of ships, was in the Southern Ocean, which is the waters right off of Antarctica on the bottom of the planet.

Peter Hammarstedt: Oh, yeah. Boy, that sure looks like this, doesn’t it? That really looks like it.

Ian Urbina: They were there to find and ideally capture The Thunder, which was at the time the world's most wanted illegal fishing ship.

Peter Hammarstedt: Yeah, that's The Thunder. We got The Thunder. (Laughter) We got The Thunder. All right.

Ian Urbina: Episode two. The Dark Fleet.

Ominous music

Peter Hammarstedt: So I have in front of me The Thunder. We believe. Yep, we've got several fishing buoys in the water. We've got a visual I.D. on the vessel. They're about five miles away. Now, Adam?

[00:01:23] Adam: Yeah, they are. Yes, 5.7 miles.

Peter Hammarstedt: 5.7 miles away. We haven't positively confirmed it as The Thunder, but based on its superstructure and profile, it's got to be, it's got to be the purple noticed thunder.

Ominous music

Ian Urbina: The Thunder was the top of this sort of most wanted Interpol arrest on-site list called The Purple List. This is a list that you have to work to get on and engage in well-documented crimes. Interpol estimated that The Thunder in the prior decade had sold roughly $76 million worth of largely illegally caught fish. The Thunder had been banned specifically from fishing in this remote patch of water and yet for years had been openly fishing in the waters nonetheless, largely because no one's out there to stop them. And so this was the most wanted vessel of all the illegal vessels on the planet.

Peter Hammarstedt: Exciting.

Ominous music

Ian Urbina: If you look at the taxonomy of crime that plays out offshore, it's pretty diverse and pretty acute. And yet illegal fishing, I think, is at the top of that hierarchy. We're talking about one in five fish that end up on plates is illegally caught or, you know, a roughly $120 billion black market industry. So illegal fishing is the mother of all crimes at sea.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: Illegal fishing is a catch-all term that incorporates a lot of different types of crimes. For example, you have boats that are fishing in places where they're not supposed to be. Those might be the no go waters that are near shore and then belong to that country and for which you don't have a license to be there. Or they might be fishing in what's called an MPA, a marine protected area. These are just sort of protected marine parks where fishing is not supposed to occur. That's the first category. The second category is one where boats are targeting species they're not supposed to take out of the water either species that are endangered or on the edge of being extinct, species that have just been overfished and are strained, whatever their fish that you're not supposed to pull out of the water and these boats come in and target them. The third category of illegal fishing is just catching too many. There are limits, there are quotas. There are seasons dictating the amount of fish. And when you're allowed to pull them out of the water and if you break those rules, that's this third category of illegal fishing. And The Thunder routinely broke all three of these.

Peter Hammarstedt: You know, this is, this is what we're down here for is to find this. This is like one of the boats we really, really hope to find. And here it is sitting, looks like sitting right off our bow. So this is exciting. This is about the best we can hope for on this campaign is to find this boat. So, you know, now we just got to see what, what happens from here.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: The Thunder was targeting toothfish, which is also called Chilean sea bass. And it's a prized target for illegal fishers because they command a high price on hotel menus and restaurant menus. You can make a lot of money on them.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: It's common sense that if you're going to be involved with a type of illegality that involves multi-million dollar pieces of equipment like ships in far flung places like Antarctica, moving cargo all the way around the world, you've got to have a pretty sophisticated network to make that happen. You're probably also going to need layers of other related illegalities, you know, document fraud and money laundering and all sorts of things. So the kinds of criminals that tend to be involved with this sort of illegal industry tend to be organized. The ownership structure of the funder was murky by design, but I had a good suspicion that they were tied to a certain organized crime syndicate in Galicia, Spain.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: I think there are two important points to reiterate. One is that there actually aren't laws that are enforceable that govern the high seas when it comes to fish. There are a bunch of treaties and they're only applicable to those who sign on to the treaties. So that's already a patchwork. And then the second more important point is there aren't cops on the high seas. There are no Interpol, Navy officers that can be dispatched to enforce this space and these crimes. And national navies and coast guards also do not have jurisdiction to be doing most things in international waters on the high seas. So it's very reasonable to think about why, then, you have players like Sea Shepherd, an NGO vigilante conservationist organization, because no one else is out there doing this sort of work. Greenpeace as well. You know, these are the two big players that are out on the waters attempting to ad hoc style implement and enforce law. And they're operating in this void.

Ominous Music

Peter Hammarstedt: Good afternoon, Thunder. This is Bob Barker. You are fishing illegally. You are fishing illegally within a CCAMLR region.

Ian Urbina: Captain Peter Hammarstedt is a young, kind of buttoned up Swedish guy and has climbed the ranks of Sea Shepherd over the years. And in this mission he was the captain of the ship, which is called the Bob Barker.

Peter Hammarstedt: Thunder, Bob Barker. Go ahead.

Radio chatter from The Thunder

Peter Hammarstedt: We are conservation law enforcement. We are placing them under arrest and they are to come with us to Fremantle, Australia.

Woman speaking in Spanish

Radio chatter from The Thunder

Peter Hammarstedt: They certainly know that we're coming for them now. (Laughter)

Uptempo Music

Ian Urbina: So next, the action begins. The Thunder refuses to stop. The captain of the Thunder commands his workers to pull the nets in while he's engaging over the radio with Sea Shepherd. And once that's done, The Thunder takes off and runs for it. Sea Shepherd, the two ships, Bob Barker, Sam Simon, they decide that one should continue chasing The Thunder and stay with them, and the other should stay back and collect the evidence, the buoys and nets that were left in the water before The Thunder ran, because that might help in the later prosecution.

Peter Hammarstedt Thunder, Bob Barker.

Radio chatter from The Thunder

Peter Hammarstedt: Just tell them that we have their illegal fishing gear on board our ship. It's evidence of their crimes. Bitch.

Radio chatter from The Thunder

Ian Urbina: The type of nets that The Thunder was using were called gillnets. And that's actually a banned type of gear. It's a kind of net that you're no longer allowed to use. And so we had crime number one on site. Gillnets are banned because they're undiscerning. You know, there's a huge amount of bycatch that gets netted in them. Bycatch is when other animals that you're not targeting also get netted and killed. So the Sea Shepherd ship that stayed back on site had this brutal job in front of them.

Waves crashing

Ian Urbina: It's insanely cold on deck, and this net that was in the water that they now had to pull up was 45 miles long.

Tense Music

Sea Shepherd Member #1 Everybody kind of had this idea that we would do this for a couple of hours and then the end of the net would be there. We had no idea. It took us over 100 hours to get the end of the net onboard.

Waves Crashing and indistinct chatter.

Ian Urbina: This was a distinctly grisly scene. What they were pulling up was dead marine life, turtles and fish and dolphins and all sorts of things that were caught in the net, including the two fish themselves, which can weigh 250, 300 pounds. And because the toothfish had been left at sea for too long under the water, a lot of them had died, decayed and started to accumulate gases inside them. So when the toothfish landed on board, some of the toothfish would explode because of the built gas inside them. So, it was just disgusting. And bearing in mind, of course, that the people doing this very brutal, exhausting work were all vegan and therefore handling this diversity of dead wildlife was especially emotional for them.

Grunting and Fish Moving

Sea Shepherd Member #2: The crew of the Sam Simon released back about 50,000 kilos of toothfish. Every single fish that was pulled up was unfortunately dead. But this was all returned to the ocean, denying the plunder their profits.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: Sea Shepherd is this fascinating organization that was born out of Greenpeace and was created by a guy named Paul Watson, Canadian ocean activist. And he viewed Greenpeace as not aggressive enough. So, Paul Watson decided to start his own organization and thus was born Sea Shepherd.

Intense Music

Sea Shepherd Member #3: Guys, ready? Ready on the hoses.

Sea Shepherd Member #4: They start to throw, they start to throw things.

Broadcaster #1: Japan's whaling fleet is blaming violent interference by anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd for its smallest catch of whales in years.

Horn Blaring and Shouting

Voice over Radio: We have found (indistinct). We have enough to make an arrest. There are also carcasses on board.

Ian Urbina: Sea Shepherd has grown into this massive player on the ocean. They often call themselves Poseidon's Navy. They see themselves as vigilante conservationists, which is to say they cross a legal line often to, you know, ram other ships or get in their way and then obstruct them or trespass into private territories. The directors of Sea Shepherd don't get hung up on these debates much. They say we're getting the job done, and if folks want to arrest us, then, you know, go for it. But in the meantime, we're going to continue on our campaigns. Sea Shepherd's motto is “It takes a pirate to catch a pirate.”

Ominous Music Builds then Fades

Ian Urbina: When I heard that Sea Shepherd was chasing the thunder down in Antarctica, I wanted to go. You have a extralegal and illegal vigilante actor chasing a well documented scofflaw vessel. It's perfectly illustrative of what the outlaw ocean means.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: It took some work to get on the ship. You know, bearing in mind that Sea Shepherd couldn't peel off and pick me up in some port. So I had to get out to some far off coordinates and be there waiting and get picked up. But, I finally got on board the Sea Shepherd vessel while the chase was occurring. Conditions at that moment were kind of worn out. The crew, both on the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon had been at it for some months, and they just had no idea where the Thunder was going to lead them. And it's important to remember, these are ships that are chasing each other at sea and ships are not super fast moving. This is not a car chase.

Peter Hammarstedt: It is a very trying psychological odyssey to stay with this vessel, to not know when it's going to end, and to also not know for sure what will happen with this vessel when it finally does go to port. And the victor in this chase will ultimately be the party that has the most food, the most fuel, and the most patients to see this through.

Sea Shepherd Member #2: What was initially thought out to be a two month campaign has now doubled in length. We find ourselves, having departed from the Pacific Ocean through to the Southern Ocean, then to the South Indian Ocean, and now finally off the coast of Nigeria on the South Atlantic Ocean.

Ian Urbina: When you're dealing with a, a repeat offender, a long term dedicated scofflaw ship like The Thunder, which, you know, over the course of a decade had engaged in illegal activities to the tune of $67 million in profit, you're probably dealing with an actor that's engaging in all types of illegal fishing with real impunity, and among the factors that explain that are sort of loopholes and murkiness in the regulatory structure that's supposed to be enforced.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: You know, you have two examples that come to mind. One is the way that many of these fishing vessels operate is they fly a flag of a particular country, and the rules that apply on board are the rules that come from that country. And the way to game that system is you just go to the country that has the most lax rules and the least capability or interest, frankly, to enforce them. And usually those are also the least expensive ones as well. And so you get that added benefit, and that's whose flag you fly. That's one of the big ways that, you know, illegal actors game the system. The second big category is you have to bring this ill gotten gain, this, this illicit catch to land at some point. And yet, you know, port authorities, generally speaking, do not really even conceive of themselves as purveyors of fishing enforcement. Culturally, they see their jobs largely as making sure that folks are getting in and out. You know, they’re airports of sort. They're making sure there are no crashes or making sure that there's a parking space open when someone comes in or needs to leave. But the truth is, their job also should be managing the law enforcement element of the cargo that's coming off. And since generally ports don't do a very good job of that. It's another way that political players can game the system.

Ominous Music and Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: The reason that Sea Shepherd wanted to stick with The Thunder to the bitter end was there was any possibility that The Thunder could find a friendly port in Nigeria and Indonesia and, you know, in lots of places where it's easy to disappear, that had happened already with other scofflaw vessels. And the minute they shook their tail and got rid of the guys chasing them, they could change the identity of their ship, change the numbers, disembark the crew, switch out the captain, and they were good as free. And so Sea Shepherd needed to stay on the thunder to make sure that didn't happen, so they could arrest that captain and prove that those guys were involved in illegality and maybe even prosecute them and convict them.

Tense Music and Water Spraying

Ian Urbina: This chase took unbelievably surprising and dramatic turns along the way. You know, at one point early on the chase, there's a famous strip of water that is notorious for deadly ice floes that sink a lot of ships over the centuries. And The Thunder opted to go straight through the middle, hoping probably to lose its tail, you know, to lose the chasers.

(Loud bang) Peter Hammarstedt: What was that?

Ian Urbina: Then, there's another patch of the Southern Ocean where you normally watch the weather and storms roll through every three or four days. And if a storm is coming through, then you sit tight and you wait for it to pass and then you cross between them. The Thunder again opted to go straight through the middle of a storm.


Sea Shepherd Member #5: I'm not sure if this is actually a tactic, if they're really trying to get into the middle of the storm or that this is just their route out of the bad weather and they're trying to ride it out.

Ian Urbina: The Sea Shepherd guys weathered the storm, made it through the other side, still on The Thunder's tail.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: At one point, The Thunder put nets in the water, seemingly for some subsistence fishing, you know, just to get something to eat. And the Sea Shepherd cut the nets, took the nets from the thunder out of the water.

Peter Hammarstedt: Got it. Got it. Pull it up. Come on. Yes, it's coming up. Good job. Go ahead a bit. Yeah, tell them to tell…

Ian Urbina: The captain of Thunder blew his lid, screamed at the Sea Shepherd guys over the radio and turned The Thunder around and began charging at one of the Sea Shepherd ships to ram.

Peter Hammarstedt: Tell them to hurry up because The Thunder is coming at us.

Sea Shepherd Member #5: Peter says, Hurry up, the thunder stone back towards us. Over.

Radio Chatter from The Thunder

Peter Hammarstedt: It's going to be close.

Ship Horn Blaring

Peter Hammarstedt: So where we're at at the moment is it started with The Thunder, turned their fishing lights on. They radioed us and said that Nigeria has given them permission to fish today, which I find hard to believe. We then told them on the radio that if they tried to fish, we would cut their nets. They dropped their buoy. We came alongside. The deck team did a great job fishing the boys out. The Thunder turned towards us and said that they were coming to get their buoys back the easy way or the hard way. And now, now they're running ten knots after us. They've turned their fishing lights off, so we can assume we've stopped them for the evening. But they've now say that we've declared war on them, so that could make for an interesting couple of months. If they do drop away, we'll have to obviously pursue them again. So, we should be prepared for the possibility that you might have to be woken up at night. But, I think for the time being, we can stand down from action stations. We did exactly what we wanted to do. And now we have a very angry Thunder.


Ian Urbina: The Sea Shepherd ships are chasing The Thunder, but it's a sort of slow motion chase, you know, and, and it's lasting over the course of four months. And the Sea Shepherd ships were so close to The Thunder that they could see what time the guys took their smoke break and who was on watch when.

Sea Shepherd Member #5: Yeah, it looks like the whole crew is out on deck.

Sea Shepherd Member #6: He’s out, He’s out on deck.

Peter Hammarstedt Balaclava man's coming out. Balaclava man's got something to throw.

Peter Hammarstedt You okay?

Sea Shepherd Member #7: Yeah.

Peter Hammarstedt: It was a bolt. About three or four inches in diameter. Straight at me. Just hit me right in the inside of my groin.

Sea Shepherd Member #6: He threw at your nuts?

Peter Hammarstedt: Yeah.

Sea Shepherd Member #5: It's a pretty good shot they gave him.

Ian Urbina: The captain of The Thunder went through mood swings over the days and weeks. Sometimes, he would get on the radio and he would curse and shoot insults at the captain of one or the other Sea Shepherd ships. And other times he'd get on the radio and he would be calm, and he would be polite, and he would sort of just talk about, you know, when are they going to end this thing and why are they so following them?

Radio Chatter from The Thunder

Sea Shepherd Member #2 We've targeted The Thunder. We've denied her a fishing season in India. We've denied her access to our fishing grounds in Antarctica. It's become a game of endurance.

Peter Hammarstedt: Either way, the ship's been out at sea now for five and a half months. They've got to be running on fumes. And we've got to be very close to an end game.

Gloomy Music

Ian Urbina: You start to see in the final days and weeks of The Thunder's run a certain level of desperation. So, first you had the Nigerian government stripped The Thunder of its flag, and that changed its legal status and made it way more vulnerable to arrest. Secondly, you had, you know, in subsequent days, this fire in these metal drums on the back of the ship that emerged.

Radio Chatter from The Thunder

Sea Shepherd Member #2: Tell him that the burning is leaving all traces, so there's definitely items with oil in them which you can’t burn in an open flame anyway.

Radio Chatter from The Thunder

Ian Urbina: It was strange at first. Why would they be burning their trash? Is that what they were doing? And then, with some binoculars in close study, it became clear that actually what was happening there was The Thunder was burning its net. Most likely they were realizing that those nets would be used as evidence against them, and they better dispose of that evidence.

Peter Hammarstedt: It's like out of the burning.

Ian Urbina: So it was just this wild, wild trip that led up to its utterly unpredicted final moment.

Sea Shepherd Member #8: There's a whole bunch of people on the port side staring in the water. It appears they may have launched.

Radio Chatter from The Thunder

Sea Shepherd Member #9: He says he’s got a problem and they're thinking.

Peter Hammarstedt: He says he’s got a problem and they're thinking. OK.

Indistinct Chatter and Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: This strange call came in out of the blue from the captain of The Thunder saying that they were in trouble. There had been some impact of some sort, but they were vague, and they needed rescue.

Loud Beeping

Sea Shepherd Member #8: That's the distress call.

Peter Hammarstedt: Yeah, that's them. Yeah. Well, what we're going to do, what we're going to do, you can tell him is we're going to use our small boat. We're going to put a line on the life rafts, and we're going to tow them to us, and we're going to attach them to us. When will it end? It's still not over yet. I hate to say it.

Intense Music


Ian Urbina: Sea Shepherd immediately puts fast boats in the water and goes to try to rescue the crew of The Thunder. The deckhands from The Thunder disembark, climb into the safe boats and the captain of The Thunder is reluctant to get off.

Radio Chatter from The Thunder

Peter Hammarstedt: Tell him surely he understands I've got to take into account his crew and my crew. He's attacked me. His crew have gone out with ski masks and thrown things at me. He needs to come on board so I can talk to him personally. I suspect that The Thunder captain refuses to leave the boat because he’s probably sinking his own ship for all I know. I tell you what, if my boat was sinking, I wouldn't be arguing about that stuff.

Low, Intense Music and Indistinct Talking

Ian Urbina: Eventually, he gets off the ship, and that allows the Sea Shepherd folks to come up on the other side without the captain of The Thunder seeing and to board the ship before it goes down, which is a really dangerous, brave move in many ways. And the goal there was to try to grab what they could in terms of evidence before the ship fully sank.

Sea Shepherd Member #10: No, it left everything. Kind of survival symbol.

Sea Shepherd Member #11: All that bycatch. Yeah.

Ian Urbina: The ship was sinking, and you never know how quickly it's going to go down. So it was a pretty tense 10 minutes of their running around the ship, grabbing things before they got off.

Peter Hammarstedt: Gemini, Bob Barker Bridge. Yeah, this boat’s going down much quicker now, so get them off.

Sea Shepherd Member #11: Just take it back if it's anything. All right.

Chair Squeaking

Peter Hammarstedt: Attention all crew. Attention all crew. Looks like The Thunder's going down.

Sea Shepherd Member #2: That's insane. That's radars, and antennas, and thousands of dollars worth of gear that is sinking, and it’s hard to fathom.

Sea Shepherd Member #6: In a way, it just shows how much money they're making.

Sea Shepherd Member #2: I know, but…

Sea Shepherd Member #6: They're willing to give all of it up.

Sea Shepherd Member #2: I know.

Indistinct Chatter and Eerie Music

Peter Hammarstedt: The time is 12:52.

Sea Shepherd Member #1: 12:52.

Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: In the moment the ship went down, the captain of The Thunder pumped his fist, which seemed a gesture of celebration and was interpreted by most as kind of incriminating. It's the kind of thing you do if you meant for the ship to go down. Not if you are upset that you were losing, you know, your baby.

Peter Hammarstedt: You know, it's really weird. It was yesterday. There was all that activity on deck.

Sea Shepherd Member #1: Yeah.

Peter Hammarstedt: You know.

Sea Shepherd Member #1: It started just after dark.

Peter Hammarstedt: They must have been getting stuff ready for this, you know, gathering up their first gear when…

Sea Shepherd Member #1: They were all carrying…

Tense Music and Birds Squawking

Speaker 2 The chase turned out to be the longest in nautical history. It lasted 110 days and crossed over 10,000 miles. This whole capture of the captain and the crew was a huge success for Sea Shepherd. You know, this was a new type of campaign for them where they weren't going to ram and engage in direct action. This was a different type of campaign where they actually worked with law enforcement, you know, Australian Navy and others and fishing companies, something that Sea Shepherd had never done before to get intel. And then to actually successfully find The Thunder, follow them, capture the crew and hand them over to law enforcement, it was a slam dunk. And it just showed the inanity that governments aren't doing this work and that an NGO of ocean advocates is doing it. And it also proved that it could be done successfully. You could find these guys, and you could bring them to justice.

Ominous Music, Birds Squawking, and Sonar Beeping

Ian Urbina: The Thunder was a notorious bad actor, the worst in many ways. But the reality is, at any given moment, there are tens of thousands of illegal fishing vessels around the world. Sea Shepherd may have six, seven huge vessels, which is amazing when you think about an NGO that has, you know, a fleet of multimillion dollar patrol vessels. But it's also like a drop in the bucket. It's minuscule when you, when you look at what they're up against.

Intense Music and Sonar Beeping

Unknown Woman: Illegal fishing has been identified as the single greatest threat to achieving sustainable fisheries in the world today.

Unknown Man: 80% of Chilean sea bass is illegally obtained.

Broadcaster #2: Sharks in the Galapagos Islands are being decimated by…

Unknown Man: The catches are dwindling. The future for the Indian Ocean is pretty bleak.

Ian Urbina: This is a virtually impossible topic to report on for much the same reason that it's so difficult to police it. And that's because the oceans are so expansive. And even finding the bad guys is difficult.

Intense Music and Sonar Beeping

Ian Urbina: However, in the last decade or so, there have emerged new technology, new tools that allow police and journalists and others to actually see what's happening out there. A couple of organizations, one at the forefront called Global Fishing Watch, emerged and have done a pretty good job at pulling data from lots of different types of satellites and aggregating them and using that data to actually cast stark light on that previously dark space, the high seas.

Pulsing Music

Tony Long: My name is Tony Long. I'm the CEO at Global Fishing Watch.

Ian Urbina: Tony Long is a guy that I've known for a long time. He's the CEO now of Global Fishing Watch. But before that, he was in the private sector doing marine law enforcement type stuff. And then before that, he was in the British Navy. So, he's someone who has a lot of experience and expertise in this space and real dedication.

Tony Long: Before Global Fishing Watch, there was no global picture of the fishing footprint around the world. This is important because without understanding exactly where fishing is taking place, there's no easy way to manage that fishing, make sure it’s sustainable for the future. Global Fishing Watch is a technology platform. We use satellite data, artificial intelligence, and huge data libraries to bring that information together in one place and present it to people in an easily usable, easily accessible way.

Ian Urbina: We hear rumors from fishermen that thousands of ships are entering an area that they're not supposed to be. The way you can pin that down is by using satellite technology to see if indeed there is a cluster of dots on the map that look to be fishing and moving in those patterns. It's a kind of eyes in the sky approach to seeing what's happening at sea. And for reporters like me, it's, it's a godsend.

Electronic Music

Ian Urbina: At the end of the day, the real public service of Global Fishing Watch is not just that they have mastered the skills of seeing what's going on out there, but they make it public and free. There have always been firms that have done this at a really high price for specialized buyers, but Global Fishing Watch has done this on behalf of the public. And so journalists like myself or law enforcement turn to Global Fishing Watch, turn to its website and its specialists, you know, on staff to use their resource to provide some public tracking of crime out there.

Tony Long: We're using several different technologies, but the main one that we sort of build from is, is called AIS or Automatic Information System. This is a device that's fitted to vessels at sea in order they can see each other and therefore avoid a collision. So it's an electronic signature originally exchanged between ships, but now it can be exchanged between ground stations and satellites, giving us a global picture. It's a really useful way to sort of see what is happening around the globe. But we know that there are problems. So first of all, you can turn it off.

Ian Urbina: The turning off of the transponder is a pretty common practice, and it's usually justified by captains as, “Well, we didn't want other fishing captains to know where we were fishing, and we don't want to give away our trade secrets,” or “We were in a rough neighborhood, and we were worried about being attacked by pirates, and we didn't want to be transmitting so they could find us easier.” But it's a fairly common practice that they do. And usually those excuses are pretexts for what's actually going on, which is they're engaging in illegal behavior that they don't want anyone to see.

Electronic Music

Ian Urbina: The most common scenario where ships go dark is these are fishing vessels and they're riding the line between where they're allowed to be and where they're not. And they're right there on the screen. And then suddenly, poof, they disappear. And three days later, they pop up again on the right side of the line. You can only assume, and the data has borne this out, that invariably those vessels, when they disappear, are entering the forbidden zone, illegal fishing, and then coming back on radar when they're done. We think of these vessels that turn off their AIS as the dark fleet.

Electronic Music

Tony Long: So if a vessel's turned off its tracker, we can use other sensors to detect their presence. The key one is that we use our synthetic aperture radar. This is radar fitted to satellites that will pick up the reflection of the vessels on the water. We use when we can, also, digital imagery, which is straightforward photographs from space in most cases. But this is useful because it gives us a different layer of data. You can generally tell what type of vessel it is from the image in a way that you can't with synthetic aperture radar. There are some disadvantages to each of the different systems, which is why it's important to have them all together. So you want to be able to overlay the data.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: You know, The Thunder was an incredible story, but it also was one bad apple. It was one bad ship. What I wanted to pivot to was proving that it's not an aberration. The Thunder is actually the norm in many ways. And indeed, there are bad fleets of hundreds, even thousands of ships that are all in a unified fashion acting illegally. So I started asking around: where might I find illegal fleets? And generally what folks were saying were, look for places where there are gray areas, where multiple countries claim rights over those waters, and that creates a void in jurisdiction, and it attracts large numbers of bad actors. But in particular, my sources were saying, take a look at North Korean waters.

Low, Intense Music

Ian Urbina: In late 2018, I started reading various reports, obscure maritime reports from the UN and the like, and started getting the sense that there was likely a very large illegal fishing fleet operating in North Korean waters. The thing that caused me to start looking around such random, obscure documents was these two strange and distinct mysteries that seem to haunt those very same waters off the coast of North Korea. One was the squid stock in that body of water had plummeted more than 70% in just over a decade.

Broadcaster #3: The total amount of squid caught in Gangwon-do province, a regional specialty from the nation's East Sea, has fallen by more than half in a decade. The Gangwon-do provincial government estimates local fishermen could face financial losses of more than 80 million U.S. dollars, and plans to…

Ian Urbina: Everywhere else in the world, squid stocks were growing, not for good reasons. Climate change was killing their predators, but that seemed odd. Why were all the squid disappearing? And then the second mystery was small, North Korean fishing boats, often referred to as ghost ships, were washing ashore with dead bodies, dead fishermen on them in large numbers.

Reporter: What are some of the things that people are seeing on these boats? You're saying that they seem to be in pretty spare condition with pretty sparse equipment?

Interviewee: Yeah, I saw some of the boats myself and they're very bare, they're very spartan. And you see Korean script written on the side of the boats, some of which mark the boats as military. And on board, you see North Korean cigarette packs, patterned North Korean flags. Some of them also, as you said, wash ashore with bodies on board. And some of them are so badly decomposed that one Coast Guard investigator told me he couldn't even identify their genders.

Ian Urbina: What was causing that? What was the driver? These two questions are what I set out to try to figure out.

Waves Crashing

Ian Urbina: There had been this anecdotal information out there about a huge number of Chinese vessels that were entering North Korean waters, and that was completely illegal and forbidden. And yet, South Koreans and Japanese had consistently reported that lots and lots of Chinese ships were crossing their territories, their waters and heading into North Korean waters and fishing there for squid.

Tony Long: We had the opportunity to do some work with partners to focus on a really important fishery in North Korea around the squid. And we wanted to test our system and see if we could really expose what was happening in that area. The squid vessels have really bright lights, like stadium standard lights that are shone down into the water in order to attract the squid to the surface so they can catch them. So this is an interesting point because if they haven't got those lights on, they're not squid fishing. But when they do, they clearly are. So, it's a double indicator we can one, detect them and two, if they’ve got them on, then we know that they're fishing. And we were able to teach the computer through machine learning to recognize the different fishing patterns that we needed to see. And what we discovered after looking over a year's worth of data is there was probably a thousand vessels fishing illegally in North Korean waters in contravention to the UN sanctions.

Ian Urbina: If the data was right, then this would be a major find of illegality. The UN sanctions that had been imposed on them in 2017 said no foreign countries are allowed to be fishing in North Korean waters. And the UN Security Council, of which China is a part, unanimously signed the document that imposed those sanctions. So if here you had a huge portion of the Chinese fishing fleet in those very waters, then this would be an unusual violation of law.

Water Dripping

When Global Fishing Watch revealed to me that they had done this incredible data mining and had largely proven that this was going on, the role that we both thought that I could play would be to actually get on the water and lay eyes on the ships and document what was going on in a first person way.

Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: I flew over to South Korea, met up with Jaeyoon Park, who's a Global Fishing Watch data scientist, met up with my photographer, videographer Fabio Nascimento.

Jaeyoon Park: (Speech in Korean) All right, time to leave.

Ian Urbina: The three of us then bought our way onto a South Korean squid ship that agreed to take us out to the key location at sea where we thought we could document the Chinese vessels heading into North Korean waters.

Jaeyoon Park: We'll be, we'll be there for 36 hours, probably not sleeping, probably a little bit miserable depending on the sea conditions. But, yeah, we can, we can get as many Chinese vessels as possible film and say hello. (Laughs)

Pensive Music

Ian Urbina: We went specifically to the coordinates where that satellite information seemed to indicate that if we waited there, we would see the Chinese passing through on their way to North Korea. And we waited not very long. And lo and behold, you know, the first line of vessels, ten of them all Chinese, all squid vessels, single file, all dark transponders, turned off, passed right in front of us, and we tucked in behind them, began following.

Jaeyoon Park: Come on. Come on.

Boat Engines Whirring

Ian Urbina: Two of them.

Jaeyoon Park: Here they are. But they are, they are, they are really dark vessels. They don't appear on the (indistinct), only radar. We can see some metal object moving.

Ian Urbina: And there are three? This guy behind…

Jaeyoon Park: There are four.

Ian Urbina: There are four. Are these trawlers?

Jaeyoon Park: Look like a very much, yeah, trawler. Wow. I've never seen this. I can see the tag, can see really the structure of the vessel. It's wide, it’s really wide.

Ian Urbina: We followed them for a while and documented that they were Chinese, that they were squid vessels, all the sort of identifying details we could muster through binoculars. And ultimately, we put up a drone to fly over them to see if we could get a closer look at what was going on on the ships.

Jaeyoon Park: (Speech in Korean). They say we are going to do the drone.

Ian Urbina: Yeah, yeah, he's going to film for a couple minutes, then he's going to put the drone…

Jaeyoon Park Speaks in Korean

Ian Urbina: That was sort of the final straw for these Chinese ships, and we radioed to the Chinese and tried to make contact with them. They wouldn't reply.

Jaeyoon Park: They’re annoyed?

Ian Urbina: Yeah.

Speaker 1 We see another boat very close, looks very close.

Wow, we're getting very close. This guy’s coming right at us. Should we be worried about that? When we put the drone up over them, one of the ships peeled off from the single file row and came at us and looked to be preparing to ram us. We peeled off at the last minute out of his path and avoided a collision. But it was a clear message that we better back off and stop following them and stop trying to document them. The Chinese swatted at us.

Jaeyoon Park: Right.

Ian Urbina: Chinese vessels are often armed. They often have security on board, and they have been documented ramming and opening fire on, on other vessels. And so this level of aggression in our own experience was illustrative of the muscular way that this fleet operates on the high seas. You got two more over here. So what's our total tally, then? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Wow. This is, like, unbelievable. Look, like…

Jaeyoon Park: They are all coming.

Speaker 2 Well it’s just like, there's so many of them.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: You have these moments when you're a reporter and you get excited, you know, and this was one of those moments because these ships I had studied for so long, quite especially studying how they were persistently invisible and how we didn't know how many there were of them and only ever viewing as dots on a map when we could view them at all. And here I was on this bright, blustery day and plain as day were all of these ships directly in front of me. And these were the most illegal actors engaged in highly secretive behavior. So needless to say, I was pretty pumped.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: By the time we came back to the U.S., we had huge amounts of evidence in lots of different forms, overwhelmingly proving that there were hundreds of ships that were routinely and very illegally entering North Korean waters with real life and death consequences. Global Fishing Watch planned to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. My plan was to work with NBC News and put out a story with them about what we had found. What the story showed was an answer to two of the mysteries that sort of had haunted me. One was: where’d all the squid go? You know, why was the squid stock in these waters plummeting? The answer was more than 900 industrial illegal fishing vessels were raking the waters clean. The second mystery was: why are these dead bodies washing up in Japan? And the answer was a 900 ship illegal fishing fleet was raking these waters, and therefore, the smaller, local, artisanal North Korean fishermen had to go way further out from shore to safely catch subsistence stock. And they were invariably getting stuck out there. You know, their engines are breaking down. They're running out of fuel. They were getting caught in storms. And for this reason, they were dying out there in large numbers, and the currents were pushing through the Japanese shores.

Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: The response from the Chinese government to the article was dead silence.


Ian Urbina: The Foreign Ministry, which was engaging before, would not answer any follow up questions, and they just said nothing. Law enforcement in the US and abroad got in touch, seeking to have access to our data to figure out if they could pinpoint the squid coming off those ships. Was it going to US, EU shelves, which indeed it was.

Eerie Beeping

Ian Urbina: From what I'm aware of, there have not been any prosecutions of any fishing players. The Chinese government has not changed its policy. It has not cracked down. Ships are still routinely going into North Korean waters. And yet, no one has challenged anything in our reporting, in the data, in the peer-reviewed article, the findings are undisputed, which just goes to show the sort of intransigence of the problem.

Eerie Beeping

Tony Long: For this to be dealt with, the global system has to kick in. So the regional fisheries management organizations, the United Nations, in terms of the sanctions, the flag states of the vessels concerned, the coastal states that are impacted on it, they’re, they're the people that need to come together, resolve this. But we intend to continue reporting on this fishery to make sure we can show whether there's been a response. And for me, as the CEO of Global Fishing Watch, if there's no response the next time we report, that's where we really pick this up, because it shows that the global system is broken.

Ominous Music and Waves Crashing

(Radio Chatter) Voice over Radio: What's the meaning of your plan? What's the meaning of your plan? Over.

Captain of Steve Irwin: Chinese Navy warship? This is the Steve Irwin. The group of vessels that the Fuyuan U 76 was fishing with were fishing using drift nets in the South Indian Ocean. It is a banned fishing gear from 1992. The purpose of my voyage is to ensure that the Fuyuan U 76’s position is reported to the Chinese government in order that your government can assist the international fight against illegal fishing.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: The North Korean ghost fleet story and the chase of The Thunder story just starkly show that there is a void at sea, that there is a fundamental lack of governance at sea, and the result is that illegality can persistently occur with impunity. You have these tiny NGOs, whether it's Sea Shepherd or Global Fishing Watch, with its staff of 20 that are fighting the good fight, but quite outmatched by the scale of $120 billion illegal fishing industry. And the reason all of that is allowed to occur is that governments are nowhere to be found.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: I've seen this again and again in my reporting them. The incentive to behave poorly is so much greater in places where people think they can get away with it. You know, this is what got me into journalism in the first place: the desire to shine light on things that are broken. In a weird way, the two sides of the coin, the unusual, you know, elation of slam dunk evidence of huge crimes that are egregious and widespread, on the one hand, celebration there. On the other hand, the deep seated frustration at the fact that when you lay it out there in the public, not a whole lot is done about it. That combination of elation and frustration seemed to become a traveling partner of mine throughout the outlaw ocean.

Tense Music


VO: On the next episode of The Outlaw Ocean…

Speaker 1: The boat captain said If anyone couldn't work, he would throw the man into the water, or he would shoot him to death Barack Obama: When a man desperate for work finds himself on a fishing boat working, toiling for little or no pay and beaten if he tries to escape. That is slavery. Speaker 2: There are more and slave workers today than at any other time in human history, and a large number of them are at sea. Speaker 3: Might stay at sea for months or years. Speaker 4: Crammed together over years. You know, not being able to leave this confined space. Speaker 5: Some were thrown overboard, shot or decapitated. The fish they catch is shipped all around the world Ominous Music


From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.

It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin and Marcella Boehler.

This episode features music by: Antarctic Wastelands, Stoneface & Terminal, Louis Futon, Smoke Trees, Sjors Mans, Brothel and J.V., DRWN., Bokki, Melorman and Machinefabriek. Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.

Additional music by Skot Coatsworth, Britt Brady, Matthew Stephens, Gammatone and Fábio Nascimento.