A pirate fleet illegally stalking toothfish in the Southern Ocean has lost one of its ships after a suspected scuttling off the West African coast.
But in a surprising development, the 40 pirates on the boat were rescued by their pursuers, volunteers working for Australian conservation group Sea Shepherd.
The Bob Barker, which has a crew based in Melbourne, had chased the Spanish-operated Thunder through the Southern, Indian and Atlantic oceans to Sao Tome, an island off the coast of Gabon.
The fishing vessel had been forced to drop its 45,000 kilogram haul of the valuable Patagonian toothfish – popular in Japan, China and the United States – Sea Shepherd said in a press release.
Bob Barker captain Peter Hammarstedt said during the rescue his chief engineer confirmed “there were clear signs that the vessel was intentionally scuttled”.
Scuttling is the act of deliberately sinking a ship by allowing water to enter the hull.
“Usually when a vessel is sinking, the captain will close all hatches so as to maintain buoyancy. However, on the Thunder, the reverse was done – doors and hatches were tied open and the fishhold was opened. It is an incredibly suspicious situation, to say the least,” Captain Hammarstedt said.
No injuries were reported, and the 40 crew members of the Thunder were being fed and given water in a secure area of the Bob Barker, and will be moved to another Sea Shepherd vessel the Sam Simon.
The Thunder is regarded as the most prominent in a band of six remaining illegal toothfish poaching vessels operating under increasing regulatory pressures.
Two other boats of the six had their captains arrested in March, Sea Shepherd said.
The pursuit of the Thunder lasted four months. Fairfax reported that in May 2013 the Thunder was blocked from landing a haul worth millions of dollars in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Austral Fisheries, a toothfish catcher that operates under regulation from Western Australia, assisted the Bob Barker in chasing the Thunder in the Southern Ocean.
“Government agencies and conservation groups over many years had reduced the size of the illegal toothfish fleet from over 55 full time boats in the mid-1990s to what is now a besieged, hard core group of six boats, each fishing for around four months of the year,” Austral chief executive David Carter said.
“The FV Thunder is the most notorious of those remaining.”