Only member countries are legally allowed to fish in the zone, which covers the waters surrounding Antarctica. Boats must be licensed and abide by catch limits. Vessels cannot resupply or transship with blacklisted vessels. Once on a black list, a vessel will find it difficult to dock at many world ports.
“You basically have to be very fast, to get on them before they destroy evidence,” said Marcel Krouse, a South African expert on illegal fishing who assisted in the Viarsa pursuit. “That’s the fundamental problem: The longer the duration between crime and apprehension, the more evidence gets lost.”
And that’s only if they get caught. Otherwise fisheries management commissions like CCAMLR have to rely on diplomatic pressure. “There are a lot of loopholes in the system,” Krouse said. “How are you going to get any response from North Korea?”
Illegal fishing is becoming a major threat to fish-stocks in the world. The UN estimates that 85 percent of all fish stocks in the oceans are fished to the very limit of – or beyond – sustainable levels.
There are no longer plenty of fish left in the sea, and scientists warn that killing off too many top predators such as cod or toothfish upsets the ecosystem the same way that taking out a keystone would affect an archway.
It is especially vulnerable as fishermen target the large, old fish that produce the next generation. Scientists believe the stock is holding steady but their assessments are limited. Toothfish swim almost a mile beneath the surface in remote oceans, and researchers have to rely on legal fishermen for their data.
The waiters at Restaurant Berenguela empty the plates; Vidal Pego has had hake cheeks with tagliatelle. His take on the scientific reports of steady decline in the world fish stocks is “nonsense.” He says the quantities of hake in the waters off Ireland are bigger than ever; same goes for cod.
Natives of the remote Galician village of Riveira, a town built around the fishing port, the Vidals are politically connected in the region. They have earned the community’s respect for activities such as sponsoring the local taekwondo club or donating money to charities for people with disabilities.
Long-lived and slow to mature, a toothfish may be 20 years old before it can reproduce
“To me they have always been gentlemen,” said Manuel Torres, a skipper from Riveira. And in cases when their vessels were seized, Torres said, “he got everyone out [of jail]. He paid for lawyers.”
Luis Pazos, Vidal Armadores’ former Uruguayan associate, agrees. “The Vidals are a family of fishermen. They always have been,” he said. “Those men think differently. If you start talking about [illegal fishing], they don’t understand it; they don’t care. Their goal is to fish and maximize production.”
Vidal Pego says that he hasn’t been in the toothfish business since 2006, the year he and one of his affiliates pleaded guilty to criminal charges in a case involving the importation of illegal catches into the U.S. Based on his entry of a guilty plea to one count of obstruction of justice, the judge gave Vidal Pego probation and ordered him to stay out of the trade for four years or risk spending 20 years in a U.S. prison.
He says Vidal Armadores itself has never been criminally convicted of illegal fishing. That is true. But Vidal Armadores or its affiliated companies have repeatedly been sanctioned in related legal actions, including more than $5 million in fines for five separate cases.