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May 3, 2006

Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish

Here is the prologue to my new book, Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish. Stay tuned for more Hooked blogs.

South Indian Ocean


August 7, 2003

Southern Supporter was in silent mode as it closed in on its target. The external lights were off, portholes had been blackened, and no one touched the radio. The radar was activated only twice an hour, each time for less than a minute, to check for icebergs. One day earlier, a sensor on the Australian patrol boat had picked up outbound radar emissions from three nearby vessels. All of them appeared to be just west of Heard Island, an uninhabited scrap of land halfway between South Africa and Australia, nine hundred miles north of Antarctica. It was the dead of winter, and the island, virtually barren and almost completely covered by glaciers, was buffeted by air so cold that wind-borne saltwater had formed horizontal icicles against the rails of the ship.

Stephen Duffy, the Australian Customs officer who was leading the patrol, knew exactly what the three vessels were doing. The waters near Heard Island contain one of the world’s largest populations of Patagonian toothfish. For most of their existence, the prehistoric-looking grey-black creatures, which can live for fifty years and grow to six feet in length, had thrived in near-frozen obscurity. That was before a little-known businessman in Los Angeles coined an inaccurate though vastly more appealing name and chefs fell in love with a white flesh that seemed to accept every spice and hold up to every method of cooking. It was also before fleets of fishing vessels—many of them pirates—sought to capitalize on the burgeoning demand.

“I don’t want to have an intercept before dawn,” Duffy told Andrew Codrington, Southern Supporter’s captain. “For now I’d like to head slowly toward them, six knots or less. If they happen to see us, they’ll assume we’re a pirate, too.”

Nautical confrontations were nothing new to Duffy. He had conducted forced boardings of more than one hundred ships during a distinguished naval career, after which he joined Customs to help create a marine patrol unit. Duffy did not really look like the kind of person who would be battling modern-day pirates. At forty-three, after many years at sea, his face was surprisingly unlined. He looked more like an overgrown Boy Scout.

When he was growing up in Tasmania, he liked nothing more than the ferry voyages his family took across Bass Strait, the treacherous body of water that separates Tasmania from the Australian mainland. Duffy spent his time on those passages exploring the ship—everything from the engine room to the bridge, where an officer once let him turn the wheel. The workings of the ship, the vast expanse of the sea, and the possibility of traveling to faraway places had an almost intoxicating effect. Duffy decided that he too would command a ship someday. He made his first visit to the naval recruiting office when he was fifteen and he joined four years later.

Duffy was also driven by a deeply felt sense of duty. It probably came from his father, a city planner, who told his son about the importance of “Environmental Impact Statements” and always spoke about the world in terms of “the public good.” But Duffy could also be difficult to read. His speech is rapid, sometimes clipped, and his expression almost never changes.

After the three ships were detected, Duffy and Codrington spent the entire night on Southern Supporter’s bridge, where the illuminated instrument panels and tensor lights produced a high-tech orange glow. If it were not for the heaving motion, the compartment, which stretched from one side of the ship to the other, would have looked like the control room of a power plant. The two forward-facing chairs near the front, each covered with well-worn terrycloth, were the control positions. Codrington was seated in the one on the port side, and from there he could oversee a profusion of multicolored levers, buttons, and knobs, as well as a twenty-four-inch radar screen. The delicate controls seemed incongruous in relation to the ship’s powerful mechanical systems: the captain could steer the 250-foot-long vessel with a single finger, either by turning the small dial on an “automatic pilot” or nudging a joystick that looked like those used to play video games.

Early the next morning, Southern Supporter was still thirty miles away from the closest vessel, the one Duffy had decided to arrest. It had been almost stationary throughout the night, so he assumed it had been retrieving a longline, an array of equipment that can stretch for more than a dozen miles and hold 15,000 baited hooks. A single longline can take a full day to retrieve and extract more than twenty tons of fish—making it the marine equivalent of strip mining.

At 5:00 a.m., Duffy told Codrington to head toward the target at the ship’s best speed, about twelve knots.

At 6:57 a.m., Codrington, who was monitoring the radar screen, had bad news: “The contact is altering course to the south and picking up speed rapidly. They’re currently moving at seven knots.” A couple of minutes later, the captain added, “They’re up to at least ten knots—they’re going flat out.”

Now that the target had fled, Duffy’s job had become infinitely more challenging. He had hoped to catch the pirate in the act. Once the fish was processed in the onboard factory and frozen, it would be virtually impossible to prove its origin. The pirates would undoubtedly say the fish came from somewhere else.

Duffy knew the ship had been fishing in Australian waters—why else would it have traveled so far to be there?—but he needed evidence. And he needed it quickly. Southern Supporter is powered by three enormous Caterpillar diesel engines that drive a ten-foot-wide propeller with 3,600 horsepower, but it is only marginally faster than most fishing vessels. And unlike others that had fled from Heard Island, the target was running to the south. It would not take long before it crossed the “iceberg line,” the dotted line in the Mariner’s Handbook that indicates where glacial ice is most prevalent. Perhaps the pirate thought the brutality of the deep Southern Ocean would be too much for a government patrol boat. But from Duffy’s perspective, that strategy only increased the stakes: if this pirate found an effective escape route, others would surely follow.