Operation Icefish steals the thunder
How an expedition to tackle illegal fishing in the Antarctic ended up discovering plastic in the belly of the Chilean seabass
For three days I scoured the scrapyards of Mumbai’s Dockyard Road with a basic drawing of a winch, the kind used on fishing vessels. I sat with multiple dealers to try and source one that met my requirements, but had no success. Deciding I needed to speak to Brian, my chief engineer who was in Melbourne, I headed back home with the idea of building one from scratch.
What we were looking for was a winch that could haul fishing gear sunk up to 4km below the surface of the ocean. It would be the first expedition of its kind in the world—a campaign to tackle illegal fishing in Antarctica. As part of Sea Shepherd Global, a marine conservation organization that tackles poaching on the world’s oceans, I was to captain the Sam Simon on Operation Icefish, and our task was to confiscate illegal fishing gear.
For a moment let’s dive 4,000m under austral waters to enter a setting of frigid darkness: the home of the mysterious, slow-growing apex predator, the toothfish. Toothfish, named for the sharp teeth on their upper jaws, belong to an Antarctic cod family that are endemic to the southern hemisphere. Prized for its fat, the species has been a target of the fishing industry since the late 1970s and has risen from its Antarctic depths to the menus of top-end restaurants around the world. Commercially renamed Chilean seabass, this shark of the deep is now one of the world’s most expensive fish, retailing for up to $500 (around Rs32,500) a kilo.
Over about two decades from the 1970s, fishing vessels had descended on the Southern Ocean, setting in motion a gold rush. Stern state action from the early 1990s largely managed to stem the tide of illegal fishing but a fleet of six vessels, nicknamed the Bandit 6, had adapted to existing international legal mechanisms and designed an operation that put them beyond the reach of everyone. What made the presence of these vessels so harmful was that no one knew how much fish they were catching, with estimates ranging from 1,200-5,000 tonnes each year by all six vessels combined. In addition, the vessels were suspected to have deployed gill nets, a form of fishing gear that snares everything that comes its way—its use is prohibited in the Southern Ocean.
The Bandit 6 vessels hid their operations under layers of identity, making it hard to trace their crimes. In order to avoid detection, they would typically employ the technique of “flag-hopping", an act of changing names and registries (or countries) at sea. Holding dual identities renders a vessel stateless under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), but since no one had documented their change in names, the Bandit 6 simply passed from one regulation zone to another with no record of their crimes. One aim of our campaign was to document a vessel that was fishing illegally and keep it in sight till it entered a port to establish its identity. The other aim was to confiscate its illegally-set fishing gear. What a knife is to a murder case, a fishing net is to illegal fishing.
And thus with two ships, the Bob Barker from Australia as the chasing vessel and the Sam Simon from New Zealand as the confiscating vessel, we set out on Operation Icefish in December 2014.
Given the absence of accurate information on the operations of these vessels, I had opted for a combination hauler which would allow for both gill nets and longlines to be hauled using the same piece of machinery, thereby saving costs while providing options. This being the world’s first attempt at confiscating deep-sea fishing gear, we couldn’t rely on experience, we had to take risks. To mitigate these, a team of three engineers and I had run calculations to estimate the load the winch must be able to take. After multiplying that by various safety factors, we had arrived at a winch size that would be safe for our novice attempt. When the manufacturers of this winch quoted us a price three times our allocated budget, I had decided to try my luck in Mumbai.
After Brian put together a drawing I went back to the dealers. In three weeks, we assembled a second-hand combination winch. The body was fabricated by a father and son duo on a lathe machine at one of many shops on Dockyard Road; the motor came from the cooling tower of a boiler, and the gearbox from a stone crusher at a cement factory. It took another week before the electrical work was completed, and the unit tested and packed for export. Once the gear was delivered on board the Sam Simon and fitted on a specially designed platform, the winch—now named the “Beast"—was finally ready for some Antarctic action.
In the days leading up to the departure, I trained with my crew on how to deal with marine life caught in the nets. While we expected to mainly see toothfish, a range of by-catch animals ranging from whales to penguins and seabirds could also be encountered. We invited experts to teach us things ranging from how to save our fingers from being shorn off, to the most painless and ethical way of killing injured seabirds. In the middle of all of this macabre talk of dead and bloody marine life, it occurred to me that this could also be an opportunity to understand the impact of plastic being ingested by fish in the Antarctic Ocean. Studying the contents of the stomachs of apex predators is an important way to study the concentration of plastic in the ocean.
Plastic has become a very serious threat to ocean health, with debris in the five oceanic gyres today forming the world’s largest garbage patch. As plastic breaks down over time, it sinks under the surface where plankton, invertebrates, fish, turtles, birds and other marine mammals ingest it. Micro-plastics act as accumulators of toxins and heavy metals and as they move up the trophic pyramid, they bioaccumulate, causing a long list of sub-lethal effects.
Such studies had rarely been undertaken in the Southern Ocean and it seemed to me that the work on the Sam Simon would be perfectly suited for this form of research.
I reached out to an old acquaintance of mine, Bill Fulton from Living Oceans Inc, the Sydney-based charity that promotes awareness of human impact on the ocean. He was ecstatic at the idea and immediately introduced me to Jennifer Lavers, a research fellow at the University of Tasmania and one of the world’s leading researchers in plastic ingestion by seabirds. As I explained the scope of the work to be done by my vessel in the coming weeks, it became clear to the three of us that we had a unique and rare opportunity to study the contents of the stomachs of toothfish for plastic ingestion.
As I made final preparations to set out, the two of them raced against time to file applications with the Australian Antarctic Division to carry out this scientific component of the campaign. Just 12 days before kick-off, we received our approvals, and Operation Icefish was ready to go! On board the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, we weaved our way south through spiralling low-pressure systems. The hulls of the ships pounded against the might of the ocean and, with each passing day, the warmth of the southern summer faded and the days grew longer. A week into our voyage, we crossed the Antarctic Convergence Zone and as the fog lifted, the magical Southern Ocean was revealed to us. With icebergs on the surface and a complex web of marine life below, this patch of ocean would be home to us for the next few months.
On Christmas Day 2014, the Beast picked up the first line of the fishing gear discarded by the illegal fishing vessel Thunder. The vessel, found by the Bob Barker a week earlier, was now running north, the nets still sunk into the depths of the ocean. As we began hauling, we understood its layout. From the buoys at the surface a line ran over 2,000m to the bottom and was attached to a diamond-shaped net panel which stood 8ft high. This panel ran for 15km and was attached at the other end to a line which ran to the surface and was marked by another set of buoys. We estimated that the Thunder had deployed five such sets totalling 75km in length. At close to midnight, we brought in our first dead toothfish: a juvenile that weighed in at 16kg and was under a metre in length.
The nets had been in the water for a week and were weighed down with catch. Our progress was slow. The Beast wasn’t able to handle the weight of the net alone so we ran it in tandem with one of the ship’s winches and hauled the net at an agonizingly slow rate of 4km a day. Light-heartedly, in this toothfish Armageddon in Antarctica, we renamed the combination of haulers Freedom and Independence.
By the end of Day 2, the crew was working in two groups—4 hours on deck and 4 hours to rest. It was gruelling work but we were keen to keep the momentum going. I decided it was time for me to talk to Colette and Bia, our on-board scientists, about the possibility of running the science component alongside the hauling. And even though every hand was needed for the main job of confiscating the nets, we decided to give it a shot.
Over the next 6 hours, 10 toothfish were selected randomly from the nets and sent to the dissection table. There the fish were weighed and their length recorded. They were then dissected to remove the entire gastrointestinal tract, whose contents were rinsed and passed through a set of sieves. The items which made it through the sieve were set aside to be examined later under the dissection microscope. They included fish otoliths, eyeballs, internal nematodes (parasitic gut worms), small crustaceans, cartilaginous discs, eggs of unknown origin, whole and parts of fish, squid beaks and coarse sand. The stomach contents gave us a fascinating insight into the mysterious life of this unique fish. In two of 10 samples, we found items which resembled plastic and we stored these for further examination.
Over a period of five weeks, we confiscated 72km of the Thunder’s net. There was more dead fish with every passing day, bloated and rotting, the large quantity of by-catch slowing our progress. When we had begun on Christmas Day, we had had 24 hours of light and the temperature had hovered a few degrees above zero. But with the sun moving north, the weather was now colder, the ocean stormier and the days shorter. We were expending more energy to stay warm, taking more risks on a moving ship and working harder against the biological clock. With each kilometre of netting that came on board, we became less strong and more dehydrated. Given the level of physical exhaustion and the advanced degree of decomposition of the fish, Colette and Bia decided to discontinue any further dissections and focus on the hauling. I let our team in Australia know that beyond the 10 samples, we would not be continuing with the dissections.
One cold morning, the weight of the net bent the ship’s overside roller, something that needed a downward pull in excess of 5,000kg. It was an indication that every single safety factor had been exceeded. If this line snapped when one of my crew was around, they would be decapitated. I decided to quit while I was ahead and leave the last bit of line, a tangle of net and fish, to the Southern Ocean. Thirty-eight days after we had connected the first line to the Beast, I ordered the line to be cut from the Sam Simon.
The Thunder never made it back to port, scuttled in the Atlantic Ocean by its own captain to destroy evidence, after a 110-day chase by the Bob Barker. The evidence from the nets was submitted to the authorities in Mauritius and it remains the only evidence ever gathered of the operations of the Bandit 6 fleet of vessels. The data on the layout of the gear, its catch composition and its efficiency was submitted to various bodies, including the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), in the hope that it would be used to boost science and promote conservation in this pristine continent.
After the campaign concluded, we mailed the suspected plastic items directly to Jennifer at her lab at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart. Her team then used a technique called Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to study the particles and was able to determine that the green particles were acrylic resin. This outcome was clubbed with a larger study sample and published in a paper Plastic Ingestion By Fish In The Southern Hemisphere: A Baseline Study And Review Of Methods (Cannon et al). The main rationale for the on-board research component was to provide the first-ever data from those deep depths; however, this information is valuable only if more programmes are undertaken in those waters.
Operation Icefish was a campaign to tackle illegal fishing in Antarctica and it concluded five months later with spectacular results. During and after the campaign, multiple state actors had swung into action with such speed and efficiency that today none of the Bandit 6 vessels remain in operation. As for our quest to study plastics being ingested by marine life, we managed to generate the key takeaway message that more research is needed. While the research component could not be completed to its intended scale, it is alarming to know that a fish from the relatively pristine Antarctic Ocean that lives primarily at depths greater than 2,000m had plastic in its digestive tract.
There is something about the word ‘Antarctica’ that still makes it possible to believe in the faraway. All the imagery it evokes is enough for one to think of Antarctica as a place to be seen in nature documentaries, not a place one actually visits.
Yet, over the past decade, Antarctica has grown to attract such numbers of tourists that it made one ‘New York Times’ contributor wonder, “Is Antarctica Getting Too Popular?" That was 2009, when the number spiralled to 45,000. It had seemed almost reckless to have so many people visit the ecologically sensitive continent. To put a check on this, all the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty agreed to new rules that forbade cruise ships with more than 500 people on board from landing anyone at all, and disallowed the arrival of more than 100 people on shore at any one time.
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