Read of the Week

Catching the Thunder

Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter


Review: Karen Watkins

Awareness around poaching often hits the headlines, from ivory and rhino horn to cycads, pangolins and lions. With about 71% of the Earth’s surface being covered in water, and the oceans holding about 96.5% of it, a book about illegal fishing is welcome.

Interpol says illegal fishing is a global business estimated at US$10 billion in annual sales and scientists say with improved technology, more and more fishing companies are depleting our resources.

Enter Sea Shepherd, an eco-vigilante group best known for anti-whaling campaigns in Japan and the Faroe Islands, who are bankrolled by celebrities. In December 2014, Sea Shepherd abandoned its fight against whale hunters to focus on the devastating plunder in our oceans.

Sea Shepherd knew of five or six trawlers involved in illegal fishing and came up with the name “The Bandit 6” – Kunlun, Perlon, Songhua, Viking, Yongding and the worst of them, Thunder.

In April 2016, the Bob Barker, a former Norwegian whaling ship owned by Sea Shepherd, set off on a 16 000km high-octane chase in pursuit of the Thunder to an out-of-the-way purgatory called The Shadowlands.

This pirate Spanish fishing boat was trawling in the Southern Ocean for Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass or“white gold” because its fillets often sell for R370 a plate or more in upscale restaurants in America.

In December 2013, Interpol had issued a Purple Notice on the Thunder, the equivalent of adding it to a Most Wanted List.

Despite international bans on the practice, the Thunder was still using gillnets. For every four sea creatures caught in its nets, only one was a toothfish -the rest were thrown back to the sea, most of them dead.

Catching the Thunder charts the chase by Sea Shepherd’s vessels, the Sam Simon and the Bob Barker, with the goal of bringing the Thunder to justice.

The most exciting part of the story is when the Sam Simon crew cut the 72km long illegal fishing net weighing 50 000kg before painstakingly removing toothfish to return the dead fish to the ocean while negotiating wild waves. They estimated this would take two hours but ended up doing shifts and it took over 100 hours to get the net on board.

With fuel and food supplies running low, the two vessels continue chasing the pirate ship through treacherous Antarctic waters. On day 53, the Bob Barker and the Thunder nearly collide.

Leaving nets in its wake, the Thunder eventually makes for port in Equatorial Guinea where a tense standoff ensues but the Bob Barker and Sam Simon crews are evetually left shocked. At 12.46pm on April 6, 2015, at the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, the Thunder sinks.

The authorities suspect it was scuttled to destroy any incriminating records. The Bob Barker and Sam Simon rescue all 40 of the Thunder’s crew.

Meanwhile, three Bob Barker crew scramble aboard to salvage evidence of the crimes. In 37 minutes of wading water, they gather charts, computers, the captain’s logbooks and one frozen 90kg fish.

The story is pieced together by Norwegian journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter who were not aboard the vessel but used radio transmissions and conducted detailed interviews after the event. They also did background work into the elusive owners of the illegal fishing trawlers.

Catching the Thunder will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading adventures, especially those based on fact.