The Somali 7: Fisheries crimes exposed by open-source reporting

By Ian Urbina, Safina Center Fellow

The world’s fish stocks are severely depleted. Over 90 percent are at or near collapse. Sea slavery is a rampant problem and involves migrant workers who are forced through debt, coercion, or trickery to work on fishing vessels, trapped at sea. Often these problems are intertwined because as near-shore fishing stocks are emptied of fish, vessels have to travel much further from shore to meet basic quotas and to be cost effective. This, in turn, means boats stay at sea for much longer stints, sometimes years, and working conditions are especially harsh, which makes finding workers to take these jobs especially difficult. The result is sometimes trafficking.

Last year I went to Somalia to investigate a fleet called the Somali 7, which is owned by a prominent Thai family named Sangsukiam that was allegedly engaged in both IUU and sea slavery. The reporting in Puntland, Somalia revealed rampant onshore corruption with local government involvement and severe abuses within this fleet, which was fishing in Somali waters at the time.

The same fleet and potentially the same owners and operators seem to be at it again. In an effort to draw attention to the new set of problems unfolding, I’ve been putting out Question and Lead Alerts which consist of primary source documents about these ships and their alleged abuses as well as questions that I’m hoping other reporters, IUU watchdog organizations, and government authorities will begin asking and answering.

Partly, this is a journalistic experiment in open-source reporting. By that I mean, the hope is by putting the raw documents and key questions out publicly and immediately others (including journalists) will seize on the material and act on them.

The Somali 7 fleet has been reflagged and renamed the Al Wesam fleet. To learn more about these ships and their alleged crimes, see Alert 1, Alert 2, and Alert 3. Below are some of the highlights of information that has been gathered and shared so far:

–The names of the ships are Alwesam 1, Alwesam 2, Alwesam 4, Alwesam 5. (The suspicion is that these ships may previously have been called: Chainavee 54, Chainavee 55, Chaichanachoke 8, Supphermnavee 21). The name of the reefer suspected to be nearby is not yet known.

–These ships are apparently flagged to Somalia.

–The owner of the ship may be someone named Ali Abdulkadir or he could simply act on behalf of a Thai owner (possibly Mr. Wichai Sangsukiam or another family member with the same last name).

–There are growing concerns with potential human trafficking and other labor abuses related to the crew on these and related boats.

–A Somali source tells me that the 4 catching vessels were given a “license” by Puntland to fish for 6 months. But then when the vessels arrived to Puntland they denied access to on-board observers (which are required in Puntland). In May, at least one of these ships was supposedly denied a Puntland “license” by Puntland fishery authorities but the Puntland president was then personally approached and the license was granted.

–Port documents from Djibouti and photos of some of the crew/ships available upon request.

–Forty-six containers of fish from these vessels were recently offloaded onto a reefer ship and transported for sale in Thailand. However, the ships were turned away by Thai fishery authorities for lack of documentation.

–The reefer that is involved with these ships was formerly named The Wisdom Sea and is now believed to be named The Renown.

–Here is what we know now about the fish coming from these ships: The Al Wesam vessels went to Djibouti to offload 46 containers of fish for shipment to Thailand, facilitated by the importer Felix Interfood Co., LTD. The containers arrived in Samut Sakhon at the end of June, but Thailand’s Department of Fisheries rejected them due to lack of documentation. To comply with custom regulations, the containers should have returned back to the country of consignment, Djibouti. According to shipping paperwork, two container vessels flagged under Panama, the Millennium Bright and the Sinar Sabang, each left Thailand carrying ten of the 46 containers that had been rejected. The Millennium Bright left on July 28 and the Sinar Sabang left the following day. Another container vessel flagged under Liberia, the Balthasar Schulte, carried the other 26 containers and left Thailand on August 1. Thailand alerted the IOTC, RPOA, WCPFC and SIOFA about the rejected 46 containers and listed the relevant container numbers, seal numbers, ships’ registration and fishing licenses of the vessels.

–According to AIS tracking, the three vessels then traveled to Singapore Port – the Millennium Bright arrived on July 30, the Sinar Sabang arrived on August 2 and the Balthasar Schulte arrived on August 3. Thailand notified Singapore and requested an inspection of the vessels and containers, but Singapore did not respond. In Singapore Port, the vessels relayed the 46 containers to a different set of container vessels. The Chiloe Island (Marshall flag) took the ten containers from the Sinar Sabang and the Sinar Bima (Singapore flag) took the ten containers from the Millennium Bright.

–On the morning of August 10, the Department of Fisheries (DOF) received the Bill of Lading for the 46 containers and figured out that Penang, Malaysia was their destination. Thailand immediately contacted Malaysian authorities with the names of the incoming vessels, the quantity and identification numbers of the containers and the estimated arrival dates. One of the vessels, the Chiloe Island, was expected to arrive in Malaysia that afternoon and the Sinar Bima was expected the following day.

–By August 13, the Chiloe Island and the Sinar Bima vessels had offloaded a total of 20 containers in Penang Port and the Malaysian Quarantine Inspection Services (MAQIS) had granted the import permits to a company in Penang. However, after communication with the DOF, the MAQIS ultimately decided to refuse entry to the containers. On August 17, the 26 other containers arrived in Penang on one of the same container vessels, the Chiloe Island. These containers were denied import permits, which had been requested by the same company in Penang. Currently, all 46 containers are in Penang Port awaiting departure. There is speculation that the containers will now go to Somalia, but there is still no official confirmation on their designation.

–Associated with this fleet is a refrigeration ship formerly known as the Wisdom Sea Reefer and the Renown Reefer. It is suspected that the ship has been reflagged in Moldova under the name Honor. This reefer recently anchored in Vietnam and, despite requests from the Thai government to inspect the vessel, an inspection did not occur. Here are documents from the Vietnamese Directorate of Fisheries reporting the Honor’s docking in the Kien Giang province before it departed on August 2. The reefer was last located off the east coast of Vietnam on August 5. Was any fish offloaded in Vietnam? If so, why was offloading allowed by the Vietnamese authorities? Are we certain that there is no evidence that this reefer is currently carrying illegal fish from the Al Wesam fleet?

Photos below: The Alwesam fleet. The red circles indicate presence of certain types of gear and distinct markings that distinguish each ship. ©Ian Urbina.

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