Maritime police have detained the blacklisted fishing vessel Kunlun off the resort island of Phuket in Thailand.
Kunlun is a 625-ton ship suspected of illegally catching Patagonian toothfish in Antarctic waters.
Australian and New Zealand authorities have been looking for the Kunlun for months now and finally caught up with the poaching vessel earlier this month.
The Patagonian toothfish is better known as Chilean sea bass and because it is so prized, it is highly-regulated but not technically listed as an endangered species.
It is the most valuable fishery in Antarctic or sub Antarctic waters and prices can exceed $US10 per kilo for headed, gutted and tailed fish in the main markets in Japan and the United States.
Unlike nearly all other Antarctic fish, the toothfish can grow to a large size (just over 2 m long and 100 kg in weight) and this, together with its high quality white flesh and few bones, make it highly sought after – particularly given the growing scarcity of other premium-quality species from around the world.
This has led in the last few years to a large-scale illegal fishery, which attempts to poach fish from the major areas of distribution of the toothfish around the sub Antarctic islands and other submarine ridges in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean sectors of the Southern Ocean.
Large numbers of vessels fishing illegally were first noticed in 1996 in the western part of the Indian Ocean, but they soon spread eastwards towards Kerguelen and Heard Islands where they were seen by Australian and French licensed vessels in 1997.
Although difficult to estimate reliably, it is thought that illegal catches were very high in these first couple of years – possibly two to three times the legal catch of this species from all sources – and probably caused a significant depletion of the fish stock in some localities.
As a result of surveillance and arrests by some countries, including Australia, illegal fishing has declined. It still however remains a serious problem, with illegal catches being similar to the level of legal catches back in the 1999-2000 season.
The vessel is believed to have changed its name, flag and registration number numerous times in recent years, the Voice of America Reported.
The Associated Press says the vessel has been called the Kunlun, Black Moon, Galaxy and Dorita, among other names, and has been registered in North Korea, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Panama, Indonesia and Equatorial Guinea.
The New Zealand navy was involved in a high-seas standoff with the ship, which was then known as the Kunlun, in Antarctic waters on Jan 14. It was one of two vessels that used “evasive tactics” to thwart boarding attempts, officials told AP at the time.
In February the Kunlun and a sister ship, the Yongding, both flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea, was confronted west of Australia by the San Simon, a patrol vessel of the marine environmentalist Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The captain of the San Simon, Sid Chakravarty told VOA in an interview:
“I had the option of tailing one of the ships since they both started running in different directions…I picked up the Kunlun and chased her out of Australian waters over seven, eight days.
“And I believe since then she’s made her way back steadily to Southeast Asia when she was intercepted again and subsequently been recently arrested in Phuket.
The Phuket customs office lists 36 people as detained on board — a crew of 31 Indonesians, four Spanish officers and the Peruvian captain.
The online news site Phuketwan said one of the Spanish crewmen was taken from the ship last Sunday for treatment of cuts at a hospital following indications of a suicide attempt.
The Phuket News said that 182 tonnes of refrigerated fish on board listed as grouper turned out to be “snowfish”, another name for toothfish, and the catch was destined for Vietnam.
The detained vessel is one of six known to still engage in illegal, unreported or unregulated (IIU) fishing, using banned nets to haul in two-metre long toothfish in far southern waters.
The fish, weighing up to 120 kilogrammes, can each sell for thousands of dollars.
The Taishan and other ships, according to environmentalists and investigators, are suspected of links to a Spanish organised crime syndicate, according to the Sam Simon captain.
“These vessels have a lot to lose. They know they’re operating illegally. They often don’t have any sort of fishing permit to operate…The only reason they do continue to come down is because there’s millions of dollars to be made every season.
Thai agencies are now holding talks before deciding the fate of the detained vessel and the foreign crew, according to VOA.