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Sea Shepherd’s hunting of poaching vessels in the remote Southern Ocean is not as well known as its efforts to stop Japanese whale hunters, but for one species it’s a lifesaver.

The deep-sea-dwelling Patagonian toothfish that inhabits the region has been a lucrative target for illegal fishing. Six vessels, which Sea Shepherd has dubbed the Bandit 6, have been raking in big bucks skirting international fishing regulations. The ships are capable of catching more than $1 million worth of toothfish—popularly known as Chilean sea bass—before returning to port.

Sea Shepherd vessels the Atlas Cove (left) and the Bob Barker patrolling the Southern Ocean. Photo credit: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd Global
Sea Shepherd vessels the Atlas Cove (left) and the Bob Barker patrolling the Southern Ocean. Photo credit: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd Global

The boats have operated mostly unencumbered in the remote expanse of the Southern Ocean, often avoiding capture by flying under “flags of convenience” that hide the vessel’s ownership and make prosecution difficult. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has put the ships on its blacklist.

A toothfish—known as ‘white gold’ by poachers—caught in an illegal gill net. Photo credit: Jeff Wirth / Sea Shepherd Global
A toothfish—known as ‘white gold’ by poachers—caught in an illegal gill net. Photo credit: Jeff Wirth / Sea Shepherd Global

“What made them stand out was their brazen return to Antarctica, year after year, in spite of being repeatedly spotted by customs vessels and other legal operators,” Sid Chakravarty, captain of the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin, said. “We realized that the vessels were deliberately exploiting the loopholes in international law and acting with a purpose, fully aware of the immunity they enjoyed.”

But thanks in part to Sea Shepherd’s two-year-long “Operation Icefish” campaign, only one vessel of the Bandit 6 is still in operation. Officials in Senegal on Tuesday detained the Kunlun, a toothfish-poaching vessel Sea Shepherd has been pursuing for more than a year.

In February 2015, Chakravarty, who was then captain of the Sea Shepherd’s vessel San Simon, chased the Kunlun for eight days out of Australian fishing waters. The boat was fishing with illegal gill nets that drag along the seabed, capturing and killing fish indiscriminately.

Sid Chakravarty, captain of the Sam Simon. Photo credit: Paul Petch / Sea Shepherd Global
Sid Chakravarty, captain of the Sam Simon. Photo credit: Paul Petch / Sea Shepherd Global

A month later, the Kunlun showed up at a dock in Phuket, Thailand, trying to off-load 182 tons of toothfish the ship was reporting as grouper fish. The vessel escaped customs after five months in port and showed up in Senegal in February, renamed the Asian Warrior.

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