Twenty-two crewmembers are currently being held in the Maldives awaiting repatriation to Thailand, following the detention of the Thai-owned trawlers CHOTPATTANA 51 and CHOTPATTANA 55 by authorities in the Maldives.

The vessels were part of a group of Thai-owned, Djibouti-flagged trawlers labelled the ‘Somali Seven’ by New York Times investigative reporter, Ian Urbina, and were investigated for operating illegally in Somali waters from March to May 2017. The CHOTPATTANA 55, CHOTCHAINAVEE 35, CHOTPATTNA 51, CHAINAVEE 54, CHAINAVEE 55, SUPPHERMNAVEE 21 and CHAICHANACHOKE 8 were all reflagged from Thailand to Djibouti during 2017, most likely in response to stronger regulations and controls put in place by Thai authorities in respect to their flagged fishing vessels.

The fleet arrived in the Indian Ocean in January 2017 and operated close to the Puntland coastline with vessel and track analysis indicating they were engaged in trawl fisheries. Under Somali law, trawling is prohibited within 24 nautical miles of the coastline, while the Somali and Puntland fisheries laws also ban the use of trawl gear.

After six weeks of operations in the region the fishing vessels were joined by the Honduran flagged WISDOM SEA REEFER, a refrigerated cargo vessel that is known to have the capability to conduct at sea transhipment. A few days after the WISDOM SEA REEFER arrived in the area, four of the fishing vessels, CHAINAVEE 55, CHAINAVEE 54, SUPPHERMNAVEE 21 and CHAICHANACHOKE 8 went “dark” so their positions were no longer transmitted by their AIS units, a known strategy when conducting transhipment that is considered unauthorised or controversial.

The WISDOM SEA REEFER has been linked to human trafficking through its operational association with the BLISSFUL REEFER, which was exposed in the 2015 Associated Press coverage of labour abuses in the fisheries sector. In December 2017, the WISDOM SEA REEFER was renamed RENOWN REEFER and reflagged to the landlocked, ‘flag of convenience’ country Bolivia, behaviour often associated with vessels looking to avoid sanctions and oversight.

Concern for the welfare of the largely Thai and Cambodian crew of the seven trawlers operating in Somali waters led to intervention by the Thai authorities, and apparent de-flagging by flag State Djibouti.

By May 2017, the seven trawlers had largely dispersed; four of the vessels were identified in the port of Suza, Iran. The CHOTCHAINAVEE 35 returned to Samut Sakhon, Thailand, on 6 May 2017 where it was subsequently detained and inspected, due to concern that the vessels were in violation of the national fisheries laws of the Federal Government of Somalia. Charges have now been made against several Thai individuals linked to the vessel through the direct and beneficial ownership companies.

January 2018 saw the detention of a further two of the ‘Somali Seven’ by authorities in the Maldives. The CHOTPATTANA 51 and CHOTPATTANA 55, both thought to be stateless, had a total of 400 tons of fish and 22 Thai nationals on board.Wanted by Thai authorities, and monitored by INTERPOL, the vessels were linked through ownership and crew to other vessels from the Somali Seven fleet. Some members of the original CHOTPATTANA 55 crew had been interviewed by Thai officials on the CHOTCHAINAVEE 35 and reported that they had changed vessels to escape the living and working conditions they had experienced and to return home to Thailand.

Per Erik Bergh of Stop Illegal Fishing commented, “It is very concerning to see that the strengthening of policy and enforcement in one region prompts operators, who are determined to violate human rights and fishing regulations, to seek out regions and countries where there is less control. Foreign fishing vessels continue to take advantage of the situation in Somalia, and as an international community, we must make every effort to stop this from happening.”

FISH-i Africa continues to monitor the activity of the remaining ‘Somali Seven’ vessels and calls for support from all port States in ensuring that any labour abuses or human trafficking is identified and the crew are fully supported. Nicholas Ntheketha, Chair of FISH-i stated, “In the Western Indian Ocean we are very concerned to see the deliberate and illegal targeting of our fisheries by operators who clearly make no effort to respect our rules, regulations or laws. The use of trawl gear so close to the Somali coastline may have devastating impacts on the environment and also on the Somali people.”

Ian Urbina’s series Outlaw Ocean for the New York Times examines the lawlessness, crime and violence that take place on the high seas. Find out more at: