Operation Driftnet Primary Goal Achieved

Commentary by Captain Siddharth Chakravarty

In early January, 2016, while the STEVE IRWIN was still berthed in Western Australia, a blog entry from SkyTruth, a group that tracks fishing activity using satellite AIS data, titled "Unusual Vessel Behavior in MH370 Search Area" caught my attention. At that point in time, the STEVE IRWIN was getting ready to leave for the Southern Ocean to tackle the last of the Bandit 6 Toothfish poaching vessels, the VIKING. The Malaysian Airlines crash site has an interesting connection to the toothfish poachers because in 2014, the day the plane was reported missing, a distress messages was received from a sinking vessel in Antarctica. We now know that the sinking vessel turned was the refrigerated cargo ship supporting 3 of the Bandit 6 vessels run by the Spanish Crime Syndicate, the Vidal family. Much like the plane, the mystery behind the sinking and the actual whereabouts of the vessel remains unknown. 

This SkyTruth blog entry has three very interesting aspects to it: 
1. Unknown vessels
2. Unusual activity on the oceans
3. A connection to Operation Icefish

And these three aspects intrigued me enough to make the decision to check these vessels out. On the 25th of January, 2016, the STEVE IRWIN had reached the location and was soon able to uncover that the vessels were fishing vessels and the unusual activity was the vessels fishing illegally using driftnets. We had just found one of the biggest cases of blatant illegality on the world's oceans- a fleet of 6 vessels laying hundreds of kilometers of driftnets in a part of the ocean where no enforcement exists. 

A large amount of small sharks and other pelagic fish were found dead in the illegal driftnets of the Fu Yuan Yu Fleet.

Driftnets were banned in 1992 by a United Nations Moratorium, solely because of the destruction they wreak upon the oceans. The crew of the STEVE IRWIN got a glimpse into the scale of this destruction when we confiscated 4 kilometers of the net and recovered the bodies of 321 animals across 12 different species. The mountain of dead bodies piled on the decks of the STEVE IRWIN represented the scale of the illegality. And in the absence of any enforcement, we knew that we had the responsibility and the ability to end this destruction. 

Steve Irwin crew haul in illegal driftnets during Operation Driftnet.

Sea Shepherd has a mission statement to tackle fisheries crimes on the High Seas. In areas of the oceans, outside any enforceable laws, combatting illegality remains a significant challenge and the role and aim of our ships is to fill this enforcement void and tackle the illegality at the scene of the crime. We also collect evidence of the crime and work with state-actors and land-based law enforcement agencies to ensure that the perpetrators of the illegality are brought to justice in courts across the world. 

Steve Irwin crew haul in illegal driftnets during Operation Driftnet.

Today, everyone on board the STEVE IRWIN is at peace and has smiles on their faces. The FU YUAN YU fleet has been disbanded and no driftnets remain deployed in the oceans by this fleet. 

In doing so, we have saved the lives of an estimated 100,000 sharks and an equal number of animals from other species. The primary aim of Operation Driftnet has been met- illegality on the oceans has been confronted and a "Rogue 6" have been shut down. The oceans, today, have 6 less vessels plundering them. 

Currently, the STEVE IRWIN is en route to Australia having covered over 20,000 kilometers since that day in January when we spotted the FU YUAN YU fleet of vessels. As a group of 30 people, committed to ending illegality on our oceans, our job is done. And to the people from across the world, committed to supporting the actions of Sea Shepherd, we thank you. The last 16 months of your support have shut down the Bandit 6 fleet of toothfish poachers and Rogue 6 fleet of drift-netters.