Finding illegal fishing vessels in the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean – over 20 million square kilometers of deep, rough and icy waters – sounds like a near impossible task. But it turns out that finding them is the easy part, compared to bringing them to justice.

It might seem unthinkable, but there is a very real chance that despite their recidivist histories, the three vessels nabbed by the New Zealand navy for illegal fishing this week, could get away with it yet again.

With pirate fishing records stretching back as much as 11 years, all three ships, Songhua, Yongding and Kunlun, were blatantly using illegal gillnet fishing gear and flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea, a country that has neither signed the UN Fish Stocks Agreement nor joined the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Despite having photographic evidence of their illegal catches, and the vessels' listing on CCAMLR's Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing blacklist, the New Zealand Navy has been unable to board and inspect the ships or confirm their ownership and fleet connections. Their flag state, Equatorial Guinea, gave permission for New Zealand authorities to board, but the vessels’ captains refused to comply, manoeuvring to prevent authorities from coming aboard.

The vessels have past, and possibly current, links to the major Spanish fishing company Vidal Armadores S.A., a company notorious for two things: hauling in EU fishing subsidies, and hauling in fish – often illegally. In 2011 we dedicated a special issue of Greenpeace Oceans Inquirer to the massive subsidies and repeat piracy by Vidal’s vessels, highlighting at least 11 arrests, seven convictions, international fines totalling over €3 million, and three vessels confiscated. Even the boss of the family business, Antonio Vidal Pego, has been convicted by the United States for attempting to smuggle illegally caught toothfish.

Despite this appalling record, the European Union and Spanish government have awarded almost €16 million in subsidies to Vidal family companies. Most Europeans would be shocked to discover their tax euros are being used to bankroll the operations of such a notorious company.

When Songhua, then called Paloma V, was busted for illegal fishing in 2008, there was a clear ownership connection to Vidal Armadores and Spain was required to take action against the company. But, since then, the vessel has changed name at least seven times and flown six different flags (not once Spanish.) The Kunlun and Yongding have had even more name and flag changes since their 2003 and 2004 blacklistings. Flag hopping is a regular trick of the trade for monster boat owners wanting to avoid legislation or to cover their tracks, and with two of the ships allegedly claiming they're owned through a Panamanian company the web of complicity widens.

Two months ago, Greenpeace exposed the damage caused by European monster boats. Among other ugly and illegal practices, these huge vessels use destructive gear, fish illegally, and travel to the corners of the earth, hauling obscene amounts of fish from already depleted stocks.

The EU and Spain, who have recently stepped up a gear in the fight against IUU – illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, have now a chance to show their full commitment. As the vessels leave stymied New Zealand authorities in their wake, Spain and the EU must investigate this company's connections, and ensure that the owners who have benefited from years of ill-gotten gains are the ones who finally pay for this decade-long crime wave.

International cooperation is the only way to bust this crime ring, and stop the plunder of the Southern Ocean’s lucrative toothfish fishery. Having found the vessels, New Zealand must continue to lead the charge – but it can't do it alone:

  • The EU must ensure subsidies stop going to those who break the rules. It should increase transparency on IUU vessels, and the companies behind them, by including the ownership of the vessels in the EU IUU list and requiring EU countries to publish their national register of infringements by, and sanctions of, their vessels and nationals.
  • Equatorial Guinea must facilitate the legal case through its judicial system, and share any information it holds on the vessels' ownership. It must also clean up its ship registry to remove these pirates, and accede to the Fish Stocks Agreement to help support international fisheries management.
  • All nations should be on the alert for these vessels, and ensure they are seized, inspected and prosecuted if they come into port. Countries must ratify the FAO Port States Agreement to combat IUU fishing globally.

These pirates and their monster boats aren't just stealing from the oceans, they are stealing from all of us. Illegal fishing costs us all, from fish stocks to coastal communities to legitimate fishermen, the future of fisheries threatened by a few greedy companies. It's time to send the invoice for this damage to the fishery bosses who've been running the racket and raking in the cash.

Karli Thomas is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace New Zealand, and Elvira Jiménez is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Spain.