By Ian Urbina
In the world of policing illegal fishing, success stories are hard to come by. The recent arrest of The Greko 1 and Greko 2 was one such rare case. I went to Mombasa, Kenya to take a look and, in a small way, to get involved with the ongoing investigation.
The Grekos are two Greek-owned trawlers, well documented as having operated in the Somali waters without valid licenses, fishing in an area reserved for Somali fishermen, using a type of gear that’s illegal in Somalia, failing to report their catch data.
The Grekos’ modus operandi was to play on the lack of cooperation between countries, in this instance Somalia and Kenya. They would fish illegally in Somali waters then skirt across national lines and offload their catch in Mombasa, Kenya. Kenya had attempted to contact Somalia in 2015, hoping to clarify the Grekos’ licenses, but there was a lack of communication channels between the countries.
Enter Fish-I Africa. This is an organization distinctly focused on this type of problem faced by poorer coastal countries. Fish-I specializes in trying to serve as an intermediary and communication bridge between countries to achieve better offshore policing. With help from a group Fish-I, word eventually got to the right Kenyan authorities that they were inadvertently harboring criminals by allowing the Grekos to offload their ill-gotten gain. Kenya soon engaged and blocked the Greko ships from docking, forcing them back to Mogadishu, where they were detained.
The Grekos didn’t stay put for long. Within days, they broke their detention and made a run for it, but eventually they had to dock in Kenya (a crewman was allegedly sick). The Grekos were detained again.
This is basically when chapter 1 of this success story ends. Somali authorities settled outside of court with the registered owner, the Panamanian Mare Fishing Co., which paid the $65,000 fine agreed. Granted, this fine was a pittance when you realize that the ships were permitted to sell the illicit catch at roughly $300,000. It’s rare though that such poachers pay anything.
And yet, this is also when this story started getting really interesting. At the time, the Grekos were flagged to Belize, which soon revoked their fishing license. The Grekos owner next claimed that the ships had legitimate licenses, but Somali authorities took a look at the licenses and said they were forged.
Next, Fish-I began looking into the paperwork of these vessels and it quickly emerged that the fraud went deeper. The owner of the vessels had received 1.4 million euros in 2013 for the scrapping of these two Greko ships, in Greece. Such subsidies are meant to prevent over-fishing by contracting the world’s bloated fleet, getting some vessels out of the business. Turns out, these ships weren’t even supposed to exist anymore. The Greek owner said that the detained vessels looked similar but were not the same ones that he had been paid to chop up.
The consequences of these allegations about subsidy fraud were pretty significant. Authorities at the EU, which provides the millions of dollars in subsidies for scrapping old ships, began discussing whether to freeze all such payment to Greece.
The challenge, however, was proving that the Grekos were indeed the same ship’s that were supposed to be decommissioned. For more proof there was need for someone to board the vessels (which were under guard off the coast of Mombasa) to take more detailed pictures of the inside of the ship’s and to collect serial numbers from machines in the engine room so that Fish I and Trygg Mat Tracking, a firm assisting in the investigation, could establish a true lineage for the two vessels.
I went to Mombasa to try to get on board the vessels and connect some of the dots. I joined up with a guy who had been considering renting the ship and who wanted to take a look at it to see if it was seaworthy. That was all we needed to talk our way on board. While he asked legitimate questions about the vessels, my photographer, Fabio and I ran around taking pictures of machine serial numbers that would later help us connect the dots and pin down the ship’s true identity.
Our timing could not have been better. The two ships were tied up together about 500 yards from shore. We took a boat out to them and when we arrived, a work crew was in the process of trying to change the ship’s identity, painting over the old name and having recently filed down the embossed previous name of the ship and painting over the patched area. The men painting over the ship’s name paid us no mind as we photographed them at work.
The Indonesian watchman invited us on board and as my colleague asked him about the ship’s seaworthiness I took photographs from the ships’ bridges and engine rooms, and gathered other evidence.
I knew we needed to hustle because it was only a matter of time before the watchman would realize that he probably had better call the Greek owner and alert him that 3 guys were on board, roaming around taking pictures, and asking lots of questions. Eventually the Indonesian did just that.
After 20 minutes of collecting evidence, I told our team that it was time to get off the ship. My concern was that we needed to get out of port before the ship owner had a chance to call local muscle to meet us back at shore and ask us some questions of their own. As we climbed off the Grekos and back into our skiff, the Indonesian handed approached me looking nervous. He then handed me his cell phone. “Owner wants to talk,” he told me.
Let’s just say it was a short conversation. I told the man that I was in a bit of a rush at the moment but I would be happy to call him back after we got back to shore. I took his number. He kept asking questions. I held firm: “I will definitely call you back but can’t talk right now.”
I do intend to call him, but not until I talk with Fish-I, Trig Mat Tracking and sources within law enforcement about the serial numbers we collected.
Ian Urbina is an investigative reporter for The New York Times and a 2017 Safina Center Fellow. He is currently undertaking a speaking tour discussing the crime and violence that occurs in international waters based off of new and previous reporting done as part of his “The Outlaw Ocean” investigative New York Times series.