‘Patagonian toothfish’: raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of it.
Apparently, the Patagonian toothfish is a “petulant and repulsive giant” living in the dark bathypelagic depths of the oceans surrounding Antarctica (and how exactly can a fish be ‘petulant’ is something I plan on asking authors Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter if I ever meet them). Whilst not exactly a looker, the toothfish is a delicacy sought by wealthy diners the world over, a fish whose rarity gives a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a whiff of exclusivity, to its taste. As well as making it the objective of unwanted attentions from poachers worldwide.
“Catching Thunder” is a story of piracy at sea, but not in the peg-leg-and-cutlasses sense of the term. This is a story of illegal fishing, ecologic disasters and of a trade worth billions. It’s also the story of those – activists, law enforcement agents, honest fishermen – who tried to put a stop to it.
If there’s one takeaway point from this book it’s that the high seas are nothing like terra firma. On land, as we know, there’s little chance of escaping inquiring eyes. The world I’ve seen in Xinjiang becomes the norm day after day and we are being mapped, tracked, face-recognised, followed; not so off-shore. At sea there are few rules, fewer ways of enforcing them and even less people who care. The oceans, “Catching Thunder” teaches, are a place where a ship can change name and flag overnight, carry two sets of registration papers, including a pre-stamped one, ready to be filled with whatever new identity its owners will come up with. A place where a handful of vessels, switching names faster than Lady Gaga changes attire, can drive a species to the brink of the extension for the benefit of faceless Spanish criminals.
Pitted in this fight against this impalpable enemy is a motley association of legitimate fishermen, Interpol functionaries, local officials and, crucially, activists from Sea Shepherd. It is indeed these activists who will play the lion’s share in the fight and in the story: their chase of one of the pirate vessels, the appropriately-named Thunder, will enter the annals for length, difficulty and risks.
Normally, I’ll admit to be wary of righteous moral crusaders. I’ve heard countless religious fanatics whose “Love thy neighbour” commandment stopped at homosexuals, or vegans who would preach against meat whilst smashing avocados flown in from 10,000 kms away. But if your beliefs are strong enough to lead you to spend three months chasing a pirate trawler through everything from Roaring 40s storms to equatorial doldrums, like the crews in this book did, then you have my utmost respect.
“Catching Thunder” reads like a spy story, like a Ludlum novel. It’s the kind of book where you turn pages fully expecting Matt Damon to get in through a window before dishing out karate chops ecumenically. The truth is that it’s a complex, meticulous piece of investigative journalism seen from all sorts of angles – the righteous, the lawful and the criminal – in a relentless progression that pulls you in like you’ve been tangled in a longline as it’s being cast to sea. But above all, this book is a sober reminder that environmental devastation isn’t wrought only by multinationals and their “greed for green”: it’s also actions from individuals, such as ordering an exotic fish, that can be equally destructive.