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Sea Shepherd rescues crew of sinking ‘poaching’ ship in Atlantic

This handout photograph received from Sea Shepherd on April 7, 2015, shows life rafts from the Nigerian-flagged boat Thunder being towed after the ship sank off Africa’s coast on April 6, 2015.

Jeff Wirth/AFP/Getty Images

Sea Shepherd says it has rescued 40 people after what the environmental group says is a poaching vessel sank in the Atlantic Ocean near west Africa.

The vessel, named the Thunder, is a part of a group of ships that Sea Shepherd has called Bandit 6, which it says illegally fish for toothfish in the Southern Ocean.

According to a press release, the marine conservation group has "been engaged in a four-month, record-breaking pursuit of the vessel, which has gone from the Southern, to the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans."

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Sea Shepherd sent two ships to rescue the crew late Monday, and said there were no injuries.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the crew members of the Nigerian-flagged Thunder were loaded onto life rafts and transported to one of the Sea Shepherd ships to be taken to São Tomé and Principe, an island country off the coast of Africa, and handed over to local law enforcement.

Peter Hammarstedt, the director of ship operations for Sea Shepherd Australia, said in a press release that "there were clear signs that the vessel was intentionally scuttled."

To maintain buoyancy while a vessel is sinking, a captain usually closes all the hatches, he said. But in this case, he said, the hatches were tied open. "It is an incredibly suspicious situation, to say the least," he said.

Mr. Hammarstedt told the Australian media company Fairfax that the captain of the ship "started applauding and cheered" as the vessel sank. He said he took this behaviour to be "further evidence that he sank his own vessel."

Last month, two other poaching vessels, the Kunlun and the Viking, were detained.

The Kunlun was detained as part of a joint effort of Sea Shepherd, Interpol and law-enforcement authorities in Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, and is being held in Thailand.

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The Viking is being held in Malaysia for violations of Malaysian maritime law. The vessel's captain has been arrested, a Sea Shepherd press release said.

Another Sea Shepherd press release said the Kunlun is a well-known poaching vessel that has changed its name several times over 10 years to avoid prosecution.

Toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, are highly sought-after fish.

Because they sexually mature around the age of 10, it is easy for the population to get wiped out, said Mike Gravitz, the director of policy and legislation with the Marine Conservation Institute.

These fish are regulated under the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

According to the Sea Shepherd website, "Only vessels that are flagged under members states are permitted to fish in the CCAMLR area and licensed vessels must abide by catch limits."

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The Thunder is not a part of the agreement to fish in the Antarctic, Mr. Gravitz said.

He noted that illegal fishing is a tough crime to detect.

Indications of illegal fishing may include: a boat fishing in an area closed for fishing; a boat fishing in an open area during a prohibited time of year; a boat using illegal fishing gear; and a boat not registered to fish in a certain area, Mr. Gravitz said.

It's equally difficult to prosecute illegal fishers.

"Typically if a navy or coast guard of a country caught somebody illegally fishing, … they would typically take [the ship] back to a port in their own country. But what if someone's caught doing this in international waters? That's a little bit less clear," Mr. Gravitz said.

Michele Kuruc, the U.S. vice-president for ocean policies with the World Wildlife Fund, said varying laws in different countries makes for varying punishments for those caught illegally fishing.

"It depends on whatever the national laws are that the violator is prosecuted under, and which laws apply [to the circumstance]," she said. "It isn't always the easiest, due to multiple jurisdictions."

CCAMLR, through its members, creates the rules surrounding fisheries, and members are responsible for incorporating the rules into their country's laws, Ms. Kuruc said.

While some countries implement these laws "promptly and thoroughly," others are "much less conscientious," she said.

Mr. Gravitz said this is what is most troubling about the ways illegal fishing is handled.

"While many countries have themselves laws against illegal fishing and there are some international laws against it, there are still too many places in the world that don't enforce those laws and actually encourage illegal fishing," he said.

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