The Battle to Save Our Oceans from an Invisible Threat
Crammed around a table in a makeshift maritime office, a team of ten investigators, campaigners and technicians are hunched over a small television screen.
As Sophie Cooke briefs the international group of activists – from China, Russia, Turkey, Mexico and Britain – on their upcoming mission, we're all occasionally forced to grab hold of a bookshelf when a particularly large wave rocks the boat.
For weeks now, from the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza, Cooke has been tracking vessels coming in and out of the waters surrounding the South Orkneys, a group of islands in this remote corner of the Antarctic.
I'm joining Greenpeace on the final leg of a year-long project that has seen the organisation travel from the North to the South Pole to draw attention to the existential threats facing our oceans. Through a combination of research and direct action, they've looked at the biggest challenges facing an area that covers 71 percent of the planet – from climate change to plastic pollution, deep sea mining and oil drilling – while traversing the length and breadth of the globe.
Home to an abundance of penguins, whales and seals, the Antarctic is one of Earth's last unspoiled wildernesses, barely touched by humankind. But the sheltered bays of the South Orkneys have, in recent years, also become a hub for transhipments: the largely unregulated process in which fishing vessels transfer their catch to cargo boats, taking supplies on board in exchange.
On this expedition, it's this complex and opaque practice – and the environmental and human risks it poses in fragile ecosystems like the Antarctic – that Greenpeace want to push into the spotlight. And it looks like, finally, there's a target in their sights to help them do this.
"We picked up this transhipment boat – the Taganrogskiy Zaliv – over the last couple of days," Cooke explains, holding a grainy picture of the 143-metre-long vessel. "Once it had gone past the Malvinas yesterday morning we knew it was coming here."
Bringing up a digital map with lines criss-crossing the globe, she takes the team through the last few months of the ship's journey, from West Africa to Brazil and into the oceans off the coast of Argentina. "According to its course," Cooke continues, "she's making her way directly towards us."
There's no indication that the Taganrogskiy Zaliv has taken part in any illegal activity, I'm reminded. In fact, there's no reason to suspect it's been doing anything against any specific letter of the law. But that, according to Greenpeace, is part of the problem: our international system for monitoring and protecting our oceans, they say, is simply not fit for purpose. And they hope that by taking actions like the one I'm about to witness, soon that might change.
The Taganrogskiy Zaliv is registered to the shell company Delia Navigation Corp, at 80 Broad Street, Monrovia, in the West African country of Liberia – an address that comes up time after time in documents leaked in the Paradise and Panama papers. Liberia is a tax haven popular for ship registration, offering owners the chance to avoid the higher taxes and stricter labour laws of the countries in which they might otherwise be based. The Taganrogskiy Zaliv flies the flag of Panama, which means its owners can, if they so wish, pay their workers less and take advantage of looser regulations, while avoiding income tax themselves.
The Taganrogskiy Zaliv is operated by the Laskaridis families, one of Greece's richest families. Two brothers, Panos and Thanasis Laskaridis, founded their shipping business in 1977 and have gone on to build a corporate empire, investing not just in boats but hotels, casinos and even an airline. Today, Thanasis Laskaridis is based in London. The Laskaridis family wouldn't confirm to VICE whether they actually own the vessel, although they have been the beneficial owners of at least three boats of the same name in the past.
At 5PM on the 15th of December, 2019, the Taganrogskiy Zaliv departed from Rio De Janeiro. Four days later it arrived in an area off the coast of Argentina known as the Blue Hole: a vast expanse of ocean that's home to a unique ecosystem. Satellite data shows it remained there for over two months, and that for long periods it looked to be transhipping.
The monitoring of fishing, and the protection of our oceans, is governed by a series of complex regulations. Coastal nations have jurisdiction over the waters up to 200 miles from their shores. Accounting for 42 percent of the world’s oceans, here states have the power to ensure stocks are kept at sustainable levels. Everywhere beyond these invisible borders is the high seas – almost entirely ungoverned international waters.
In an effort to bring some order to the total chaos – which has seen catches from the high seas increase by 400 percent since the 1950s – a bunch of regional intergovernmental bodies were created, tasked with protecting specific areas. They've had limited success, mostly because it's a fragmented approach to a distinctly global problem.
But the Blue Hole waters of the Southwest Atlantic, where the Taganrogskiy Zaliv spent January and February this year, are even more exposed: with almost no governance whatsoever, when boats fish here – sometimes over 400 vessels at a time – it's a total free-for-all.
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