How the 'Steve Irwin' Closed the Gap on Poachers in the Indian Ocean

The captain of Sea Shepherd's boat is making some criminals aboard illegal fishing boats very nervous right now.

Siddharth Chakravarty is locked in a dramatic chase with driftnet poachers in the Indian Ocean.

As captain of Sea Shepherd’s MV Steve Irwin, he’s closed in on his latest target yet: A ship that is using illegal driftnets to poach sharks and tuna.

Over the past few days the activist group have been tracking a fleet of six vessels named Fu Yuan Yu that they have previously caught in the act of illegal fishing. All but one of them got away when the Steve Irwin approached them late this week.

“It is very clear from our interactions that the fleet does not want to be documented or have their operations uncovered,” Chakravarty tells Inverse via email.

The Steve Irwin

“I sent in the small boats first to document the vessels and with other information, such as satellite AIS data, was able to determine that the vessels were engaged in fishing. After tracking the vessel for close to 12 hours on the ship’s radar, we finally confronted the vessel.

“Seeing the Steve Irwin arrive on the scene, for the second time since January, the Fu Yuan Yu 076 attempted to flee. The Steve Irwin closed the gap on her stern and is now on the starboard quarter of the vessel.”

This what a poaching ship looks like.

This one ship, at least, is out of commission for the foreseeable future. Chakravarty says his crew will do what it takes to prevent them from fishing.

“I have radioed the Fu Yuan Yu 076 and have made it clear that I will blockade their fishing operations,” he says.

“I’ll be using the ship to block them from deploying gear, by approaching from the stern. If the nets are in the water then I will attach the nets to the Steve Irwin and haul them in. I have specially installed gear to be able to retrieve these long 10-nautical-mile nets. If the vessel has already deployed her gear then I’ll stop her from approaching the net so she cannot retrieve them. The idea is to confiscate her gear away so she cannot continue to fish using them.”

These direct action tactics have already proved successful. Earlier this year the Steve Irwin intercepted the Fu Yuan Yu 071 and pulled in three miles of net. The fishing gear contained the bodies of 321 dead or dying fish, sharks, seals, and dolphins.

Southern Bluefin Tuna

The ships are likely targeting sharks for their fins and liver, says Chakravarty. “It is likely that the vessels are also retaining the southern bluefin tuna. We have documented them discarding the other non-wanted species back into the water.”

The Sea Shepherd is fresh off another victory: the sinking of the MV Viking, a notorious fishing vessel, by the Indonesian government. Sea Shepherd had been tracking the vessel and notified authorities when it entered Indonesian waters. The Indonesian government don’t take kindly to marine poachers, and it blew up the ship in a dramatic display this week.

“The mood on the Steve Irwin is one of elation,” says Chakravarty. “This crew has recently wound up Operation Icefish 2015-16, which saw the last of the Bandit 6 toothfish poachers arrested and destroyed in Indonesia by the officials. Within a week of that happening, the Steve Irwin is once again on the pursuit of a poaching vessel. Being on the front-lines of marine conservation is a very fulfilling emotion.”

It’s hard to say how this high-seas chase will play out, but don’t bet on Chakravarty and his crew giving up easily. Last year the Sea Shepherd’s MV Bob Barker chased the MV Thunder, a notorious poaching trawler, for 110 days and more than 10,000 nautical miles before the Thunder sank — likely in a deliberate attempt to destroy the evidence on board.

Media via Tim Watters, Tim Watter / Sea Shepherd Global