Remembering Kunlun, a Poacher Now Rotting in Dakar
Monday, Dec 23, 2019
Kunlun, arrested in Senegal as it attempted to offload an illegal catch of toothfish, nine months after the Thunder sank in the Gulf of Guinea, is now a rotting monument to the global effort that shutdown the Bandit Six. Commentary by Captain Peter Hammarstedt.
I felt the crunch of layers of rust covered in oily grime under my feet, as I set foot on the deck of Asian Warrior in the West African port of Dakar; a vessel that I had always known under its previous name, Kunlun.
In 2014, Kunlun was one of the ‘Bandit Six’, six toothfish poaching vessels that – together with a now infamous trawler formerly known as Thunder – plundered the Southern Oceans of Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish.
Kunlun, arrested in Senegal as it attempted to offload an illegal catch of toothfish, nine months after the Thunder sank in the Gulf of Guinea, is now a rotting monument to the global effort that shutdown the Bandit Six.
While my crew and I on Bob Barker were chasing Thunder north from the frozen Antarctic continent, through the perilous seas of the Southern Ocean, Captain Siddharth Chakravarty and his crew on Sam Simon engaged Kunlun, many hundreds of miles to our southeast.
The Sam Simon crew escorted Kunlun out of the toothfish fishing grounds before turning over evidentiary documentation to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the New Zealand authorities that were also looking for the vessel due to its long history of fishing violations and its link to known Spanish crime syndicate, Vidal Armadores, that owned it.
Like Thunder before it, Kunlun became the subject of an Interpol Purple Notice, essentially a ‘wanted’ listing, alerting police authorities around the world that New Zealand was investigating it for fisheries crimes.
The sister ships of Kunlun – named Yongding and Songhua – were subsequently apprehended in Cabo Verde, when on a routine visit to the Mindelo, I alerted INTERPOL, the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries and the Cabo Verde judicial police, to their presence in the port. Almost four years later, the two vessels remain in Cabo Verde.
Walking into the bridge of Kunlun, I had to step over a mattress belonging to the Senegalese security guard who is now the vessel’s lone watchkeeper. The bridge console is an empty shell, with all electronic navigational equipment long since pulled from it, including the radar on which Kunlun would have tracked Sam Simon’s pursuit.
Looking forward, the vessel listed slightly to port, opposite from the starboard list that Thunder took on before sinking due to deliberate sabotage from its captain who made the ill-fated decision to sink his own ship, destroying the evidence on board. The captain, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo of Chile, was later sentenced to 2 years and 11 months in prison for that act.
Nobody came forward to claim Kunlun. The ship remains in the custody of the government of Senegal whose actions in arresting the ship must be commended.
This former phantom is now very real in its decay, the previous mystique surrounding the shadowy vessel gone as it physically falls apart.
Kunlun is a monument to what was a global effort to shutdown the Bandit Six.
Should we ever doubt the ability of civil society and governments to work together to really shutdown illegal fishing, we need only to look at the sad rotten hunk of steel that was Kunlun in Dakar – and remember that in the deepest waters of the Gulf of Guinea, Thunder continues to sit at a depth of 3,800 meters, the same depth at which Titanic sank.