Big-time fish poachers caught off Phuket

Big-time fish poachers caught off Phuket

A photograph released in January by the New Zealand Defence Force shows the Kunlun fishing vessel in the Southern Ocean. The ship, since renamed the Taishan, is now being detained off Phuket. (AFP Photo)
A photograph released in January by the New Zealand Defence Force shows the Kunlun fishing vessel in the Southern Ocean. The ship, since renamed the Taishan, is now being detained off Phuket. (AFP Photo)

A notorious blacklisted fishing vessel that has been on the run in remote waters off Antarctica for months has been detained off Phuket, maritime police in Thailand have confirmed.

The vessel, sought by authorities in Australia and New Zealand, is now anchored off an island near Phuket, Voice of America reported.

The 625-ton Taishan is suspected of engaging in catching illegal toothfish in Antarctic waters. The Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, is a highly regulated and prized catch. While not endangered, toothfish have been at risk from overfishing and tough international regulations have succeeded in reducing poaching in recent years.

The vessel is believed to have changed its name, flag and registration number numerous times in recent years, VOA reported. It was tagged with an Interpol Purple Notice in January for illegal fishing.

Maritime officials who spoke to The Associated Press say 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.

“I had the option of tailing one of the ships since they both started running in different directions," the captain of the Sam Simon, Sid Chakravarty, told VOA. "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."

Lt Col Panya Chiachana, an inspector with the Thai marine police, confirmed to VOA that the vessel was detained by authorities off Phuket on March 6, acting on a complaint from Australian officials.

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.

“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," said Mr Chakravarty. "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.

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