“It was sink or surrender”: behind a dangerous 10,000 mile ocean pursuit | Documentary films


The scale of the high seas drama in Chasing the Thunder, a 2018 documentary currently airing on Discovery + about the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history, is rightly and at times incredibly colossal.

For 110 days in early 2015, the Bob Barker, a vessel outfitted by the nonprofit Sea Shepherd to monitor some of the most remote waters on the planet, chased the Spanish Thunder for more than 10,000 nautical miles, from Antarctica to the west coast. of Africa. Both vessels – one an infamously lucrative illegal fishing vessel, the other an eco-vigilant trawler largely made up of idealistic young volunteers – endured water temperatures that could kill with cardiac arrest, storms cyclonic with swells of 50 feet and an ice floe that could freeze and trap a boat in a few minutes.

Chasing the Thunder, directed by longtime film partners Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin and co-produced by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, follows one of the most volatile chapters in the high-stakes fight against illegal fishing. A visual account of simultaneity report on the outlaw ocean by The New York Times’ Ian Urbina (who does not appear in the film), it’s a 96-minute time capsule of the wild west that is illegal fishing on the high seas, where shady ships with the dark backing of the Organized crime is raking in droves of profits from the planet’s plummeting fish populations, and stubborn nonprofits are substituting for the intensive and costly enforcement that individual governments are unable or unwilling to provide.

The crew of the Bob Barker and his partner ship, the Sam Simon (named after two famous Sea Shepherd donors, who have long had close ties to Hollywood), understood what many lay people do not understand: fishing illegal is important, open and ecologically devastating. business. At the time of filming in 2015, it was a $ 10 billion industry, controlled on behalf of Interpol and the cooperative countries but in reality by no one except the eco-vigilantes sufficiently trained and equipped to brave. the elements.

The Thunder’s sought-after Patagonian toothfish, known to American consumers in a strategic new brand known as “Chilean Sea Bass,” can grow up to 6 feet long and weigh over 250 pounds. It dwells a mile deep in the coldest waters on Earth. By the time Sea Shepherd spotted the Thunder in the Southern Ocean hinterland, it had earned over $ 60 million on what is known as “white gold,” a trickle of which can be sold to United States for 30 dollars the plate, despite a price of nine one-year ban on the ship and a place on Interpol Purple Notice newsletter (the maritime equivalent of a list of most wanted people).

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is a major contributor to the depletion of commercial ocean fish stocks; some estimates suggest that 90% of the world’s population of large fish such as tuna, marlin and swordfish are already extinct. One in five fish imported into the United States was probably of illegal origin. Violators range from individual outfits suitable for industrial-scale illegal fishing, such as the Thunder (which Interpol suspected was backed by a Spanish illegal fish kingpin named Antonio Vidal), to state-sanctioned China fleet illegal capture of squid off the coast of North Korea.

Illegal fishing and overfishing seriously threaten the world’s food supply and the long-term recoverable health of the planet’s oceans, but unsurprisingly, short-term profit motives have prevailed. It’s “kind of like the petrochemical industry – they’ve known about global warming for decades; they didn’t tell anyone. It was not in their best interests to tell anyone, ”Benjamin told The Guardian. “The fishing industry knows they are bringing down that premium.

Sea Shepherd, the eco-vigilant association created by Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson in 1977, explicitly works to prevent such damage in international waters, where national enforcement is rare. In Chasing the Thunder, the organization’s crews sought not only to spare the fish from the Thunder’s destructive gillnets, which indiscriminately kill marine life a mile below the waves of Antarctica, but to demonstrate that offenders fishing regulations could and would be brought to justice. “The crew understand that vigilance is needed at a time when crime is so rampant,” Benjamin said. “And I think every member of the volunteer team [felt] that they had to be part of it.

Thunder swimming through the ice. Photography: Simon Ager / discovery +

Chasing the Thunder, filmed extensively by Sea Shepherd staff on board during the 2015 chase, also captures the most recognizable scale of human madness, fury, and mixing at sea: the thunder crews smoking themselves breeze on deck, spotted by binoculars; tense radio calls between ships, managed by a translator; the heavy attempts to communicate with the largely Indonesian crew of the Thunder, who probably work for $ 100 to $ 150 a month and which Sea Shepherd executives do not hold responsible for their illegal work, through messages in a bottle thrown from electric boats. (A masked Thunder sailor rejected a section of metal chain.)

There is a playful back-and-forth between the two captains of the ship, Peter Hammarstedt of Bob Barker, a Swede with an even keel, and Siddarth “Sid” Chakravarty of Sam Simon, an Indian whose crew spends weeks at hauled up nearly 45 miles of the Thunder’s gillnet (and, to our collective horror, hundreds of dead toothfish worth over $ 210,000) as evidence of legal action against the ship. The warm collaboration of the duo was “a bit like a love affair for me,” said Benjamin, “these two captains who had so much respect for the work they were doing and who treated each other with so much dignity and respect. “.

The same can’t be said of the dialogue with the Thunder captain, a Chilean named Alfonso Rubio Cataldo, whose desperate frustration turns into two or three near-disasters. At one point, inflamed by Sea Shepherd’s confiscation of their illicit fishing gear, the 202-foot steel-sided Thunder abruptly turns around and charges the Barker, who escapes the collision by a meter. The saga ends (again, 2015, but spoiler alert) with the sinking of the Thunder Miles off the west coast of Africa, in what appears to be a deliberate scuttling to bury overwhelming evidence – thousands of pounds toothfish, logs, computers, files – under the waves.

The Bob Barker Bridge during the storm.
The Bob Barker Bridge during the storm. Photography: Simon Ager / discovery +

“It was sink or surrender” for the Thunder, Benjamin said, “and they must have got the word from someone. No one will ever really know who the Thunder was benefiting from because the legal industrial fishing industry is shrouded in secrecy, but the illegal fishing industry is a mystery to everyone. Yet thanks in large part to the collection of evidence from Simon, Cataldo, the Thunder’s chief engineer, and another mechanic were condemned by a court in São Tomé and Príncipe to prison terms ranging from two to three years.

Such concrete justice is a rare achievement in the realm of environmental documentary, Benjamin said, especially as illegal fishing and overfishing continue to exhaust vulnerable populations. “History is going to judge us on what we saved on this planet,” Benjamin said. Chasing Thunder follows, for a monumental season, “the people who have boots on the bridge, put their hearts into it and give their all. That’s why they have a victory at sea. And that’s why the Thunder fell, and that’s why the captain went to jail, and that’s why the Patagonian toothfish is more protected today, and these illegal ships have disappeared from the Southern Ocean.

“It’s thanks to people like you or me, not Rambos mercenaries or ex-GIs or special forces,” he added. “They’re really just a bunch of amazing, dedicated young people.”

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