Hunting Pirates Who Steal Millions of Tons of Fish From the Seas

“These criminal actors threaten fragile species, forcing an international coalition to track them down”

“The seas were calm and the winds were light when the Andrey Dolgov, a cargo ship flying the Cambodian flag, motored in from the South Atlantic Ocean toward Walvis Bay, Namibia, one March day in 2016. A crewman radioed ahead and asked for clearance to unload hundreds of thousands of pounds of frozen Antarctic toothfish pieces in sacks and boxes, and an additional 6,200 pounds of toothfish heads. The total­—about 125 tons—would fetch more than $3.6 million on the wholesale market.

The ship’s forthright declaration raised suspicions. Namibia is part of a coalition of nations that have pledged to protect the Antarctic toothfish, which has a high market value and is biologically vulnerable. When port authorities started asking questions, the Andrey Dolgov’s crew said they had merely offloaded the fish from a Korean ship named the Bochang No. 3. But there was no Bochang No. 3 registered in South Korea. It seemed doubtful the Bochang No. 3 even existed. Namibia denied the ship entry and reported the encounter to international authorities. The Andrey Dolgov sailed on.

Two months later, the same rust-stained ship appeared in the Chinese port of Yantai, on the Yellow Sea. It carried what was most likely the same stock of frozen Antarctic toothfish, but the crew said the haul was Pacific cod for transshipment to Vietnam. This time, though, officials were on alert. Authorities in Yantai tested the flesh and identified it as Antarctic toothfish. They seized the stock and fined the Andrey Dolgov. Once again, though, the ship was allowed to leave.”

Tristram Korten reports for Smithsonian Magazine in the September 2020 issue, with support from  the Pulitzer Center.