Maritime police in Thailand confirm they have detained a notorious blacklisted fishing vessel - with a mainly Indonesian crew - that has been on the run in remote waters for months.
A well-known but elusive poaching vessel, sought by authorities in Australia and New Zealand, is now anchored off an island near the Thai resort of Phuket.
Maritime police say they are investigating the 625-ton ship named Taishan whose (IMO) registration number matches the Kunlun. It is suspected of engaging in catching illegal toothfishing in Antarctic waters.
The Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, is a highly regulated and prized catch.
The suspect vessel, which is believed to have changed its name, flag and registration number numerous times in recent years, was tagged with an Interpol Purple Notice in January for illegal fishing.
Maritime officials say the vessel has also been registered in North Korea, Sierra Leone, Panama and Tanzania.
It was spotted as the Kunlun in early February, along with a sister ship, the Yongding, both flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea, west of Australia by a patrol vessel of the marine environmentalist Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
The captain of the Sam Simon, Sid Chakravarty, speaking to VOA on Thursday from the southern Indian Ocean via satellite phone, said he gave chase in a direct action tactic for which Sea Shepherd is known.
“I had the option of tailing one of the ships since they both started running in different directions. And I picked up the Kunlun and chased her out of Australian waters over seven, eight days. And I believe since then she's made her way back steadily to Southeast Asia when she was intercepted again and subsequently been recently arrested in Phuket,” stated Chakravarty.
Marine police inspector Lt. Col. Panya Chiachana confirmed to VOA on Thursday the vessel was detained by authorities off Phuket on March 6 acting on an complaint from Australian officials.
The Phuket customs offices lists 36 people as detained on board - a crew of 31 Indonesians, four Spanish officers and the Peruvian captain.
The online news site Phuket Wan said one of the Spanish crewmen was taken from the ship on Sunday for treatment of cuts at a hospital following indications of a suicide attempt.
The Phuket News website said 182 tons of refrigerated fish on board listed as grouper turned out to be “snowfish,” another name for toothfish, and the catch was destined for Vietnam.
The detained vessel is one of six known to still engage in illegal, unreported or unregulated (IIU) fishing, using banned nets to haul in two-meter long toothfish in far southern waters.
The fish, weighing up to 120 kilograms can each sell for thousands of dollars.
The Kunlun and other ships, according to environmentalists and investigators, are suspected of links to a Spanish organized crime syndicate.
Sea Shepherd's Chakravarty, the captain of the Sam Simon, said a lot is at stake for the poachers and they do not hesitate to intimidate vessels pursuing them.
“These vessels have a lot to lose. They know they're operating illegally. They often don't have any sort of fishing permit to operate. The only reason they do continue to come down is because there's millions of dollars to be made every season,” said Chakravarty.
Thai authorities say they are to hold a meeting among relevant agencies before deciding the fate of the detained vessel and the foreign crew.
Sea Shepherd said another one of its ships, the Bob Barker, - as part of the organization's “Operation Icefish” - has been chasing the Nigerian-registered vessel Thunder for more than 90 days and the two vessels are now in the Gulf of Guinea. The chase began in mid-December on the Banzare Bank in Antarctica.