A bluefin tuna cage being towed by an Italian fishing boat in the Mediterranean. Photo: Gavin Parson / AFP / Getty Images

By Matthew Green
24 February 2016

(The Guardian) – On 2 August 2015, a flotilla of white-hulled fishing boats assembled in Sant’Agata di Militello, a port in northern Sicily, in the late afternoon sun. As a brass band played, a holiday crowd gathered along the quay. A float bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary, crowned with a halo of gold and decorated with white flowers, was loaded onto one of the craft. With the priest and the brass band on board, the vessel, decked out in palm fronds, puttered out into the bay. As the Madonna was borne over the waves in the annual ritual to bless the sea’s harvest, onlookers crowded onto the other boats, which began to follow in the vessel’s wake, their lights winking on in the dusk.

While the crowd’s eyes were fixed on the Madonna, a clean-cut, compactly-built man with neat blond hair joined the melee and crossed a gangplank onto one of the boats. As the skipper cast off, his craft now filled with revellers, the blond man slipped below deck, unseen. The stowaway, a Dutchman named Wietse van der Werf, was a former ship’s engineer and knew his way around boats. He soon found what he was looking for: an orange nylon driftnet neatly folded under a tarpaulin. Known as “curtains of death” for the indiscriminate destruction they visit on whales, seabirds, dolphins and sharks, such nets – which can be 20km long and the height of a 10-storey building – are subject to strict international controls. As guests on deck watched fireworks bursting above the bay, Van der Werf filmed the driftnet on his phone.

When the fireworks above Sant’Agata faded, the flotilla returned to the harbour, illuminated by the glare of sodium lights. Waiting until the guests had disembarked, Van der Werf casually took a picture of another driftnet piled on the aft deck, gave the captain a friendly nod, then hopped ashore. Relieved to have escaped undetected, he drove back to the “safe house” – a nondescript apartment he had rented in a seaside village 20km down the coast – and downloaded the images onto his laptop.

With his faintly bookish air, Van der Werf would more easily pass as the founder of a disruptive online startup than an undercover detective. Nevertheless, his clandestine trip was just the kind of amateur sleuthing he sees as key to defeating a growing threat: the lucrative illegal fishing industry supported by organised crime.

Where once crime syndicates focused on more familiar black market commodities – cocaine or heroin; arms; smuggled crude oil; trafficked women – law enforcement officials say that cartels are discovering opportunities in the more innocuous-sounding world of fisheries. In 2013 Interpol launched Project Scale, an initiative to coordinate the fight against transnational fisheries crime, estimated to be worth up to $23bn a year. The offences vary widely – from flouting international rules designed to protect fragile stocks in the northern hemisphere, to the trawling of nominally protected but barely policed waters in some parts of the south. It is an appealing proposition for criminal gangs: illicit catches can command enormous sums of money and there is very little risk of being caught. “Sometimes I think I’d like to make an advert of police munching doughnuts as an old lady gets robbed right in front of them,” Van der Werf told me. “That’s the reality in our oceans every day: crimes are committed and the police are not doing anything.”

The more endangered the species, the higher the price. In Italy, prosecutors suspect the mafia is involved in the trade in illegally caught Atlantic bluefin tuna: magnificent, half-tonne predators fished in the Mediterranean since Roman times. Drug-smuggling gangs have muscled in on the illicit trade in Russian caviar, eggs laid by leatherback sea turtles on Costa Rican beaches, and South Africa’s harvest of abalone, a sea snail considered a delicacy in parts of south-east Asia. In Scotland, police say eastern European gangs are using live cables to electrocute razor clams, scooping up daily catches worth £65,000.[more]

The Black Fish: undercover with the vigilantes fighting organised crime at sea

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