Following Sea Shepherd’s victory of saving 784 threatened, endangered and protected whales during the 2013/14 whaling season, the International Court of Justice in The Hague delivered a landmark ruling declaring that the Japanese whaling program in the Antarctic is illegal.
Shortly thereafter, the Japanese Government announced that despite the momentous decision by the highest court in the world, the Japanese whaling fleet will return to the Southern Ocean in the 2014/15 Austral summer season; to conduct non-lethal surveying of whales, with the intention of resuming full scale lethal whaling in the 2015/16 season.
Sea Shepherd is preparing its fleet of ships to once again confront the Japanese whale poachers, should they decide to resume their illegal whaling operations this coming season.
However, if the whale poachers abide by their promise to not kill whales, then Sea Shepherd will take the opportunity to target the illegal fishing of Patagonian and Antarctic Toothfish in the Southern Ocean, shifting focus from saving endangered whales to protecting vulnerable fish and the delicate marine ecosystem that they inhabit.
Both Patagonian and Antarctic Toothfish are unique long-lived icefish species that are particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation due to their slowness to reach sexual maturity and high market value. They are distinctive in that they live in Antarctic waters in depths of 300 to 2,500 meters; the coldest waters on Earth. As a result of this freezing habitat the Antarctic Toothfish has evolved antifreeze-like proteins in its tissue, which with limited scientific research we still know very little about. Illegal fishing of toothfish has shown to have a devastating effect on toothfish populations, leading to collapse and closure of certain fishing areas.
“Operation Icefish will be the first campaign of its kind, using innovative direct action tactics to fill a law enforcement void exploited by illegal toothfish operators. The Bob Barker and the Sam Simon will leave Hobart, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand, respectively, to shutdown illegal toothfish operators in Antarctic waters. Illegal fishing operations will be documented, reported and confronted. Unlawful fishing gear will be confiscated and disposed of.
In the course of Operation Icefish, Sea Shepherd will patrol the Southern Ocean ‘shadowlands’ in a bid to make a citizen’s arrest of the half dozen illegal toothfish operators who continue to exploit these vulnerable fish populations outside of the full reach of the law,” said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Ship Operations for Sea Shepherd Global
Illegal toothfish vessels operate in a law enforcement vacuum created by the legal and logistical challenges that face conventional policing bodies. Poachers constantly rename and reflag vessels by using, and switching between, shell companies and flags of convenience. Most importantly, illegal toothfish operators exploit the vast remoteness of the Southern Ocean to evade detection where effective surveillance is lacking.
At the turn of the century, around one-third of the catch of toothfish in conservation areas was from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. However, due to a combination of increased surveillance and patrolling of territorial and economic waters by relevant national bodies like the Governments of Australia and New Zealand, together with other conservation measures, conservation management bodies believe IUU fishing to be largely mitigated in the areas that were formerly heavily-exploited - such as the Australian subantarctic Heard and Macdonald Islands. But the illegal fishing for toothfish continues to take place in what Sea Shepherd calls the ‘shadowlands’ of the Southern Ocean; areas outside of national jurisdiction and waters with limited legitimate vessel traffic where the risk of detection is minimal. IUU fishing has essentially shifted to new toothfish populations that are not afforded the same protection from surveillance and patrolling.
“During several of our past Southern Ocean campaigns, we have encountered illegal longlines. It has been on our agenda for many years to intervene against these fishing boats.The illegal and unregulated fishing of Patagonian and Antarctica toothfish needs to be stopped and Sea Shepherd has the passion and the resources to do so,” said Captain Alex Cornelissen, Chief Executive Officer for Sea Shepherd Global.
"Whether it will be whale poachers or Toothfish poachers, Sea Shepherd is determined to maintain a spotlight on what is often known as the "last frontier", Antarctica's Southern Ocean Wilderness, which is of global significance and deserves the outmost protection. There are few places left in this world with nature on a grand scale," said Jeff Hansen, Managing Director Sea Shepherd Australia.