The ship pulled into Phuket and offloaded eight containers holding 182 tons of fish, labelled “grouper”. These were taken by road to Songkhla where they were to have been loaded onto another vessel for shipment to Vietnam.
The consignment was intercepted by Customs there, however, and after examination it was discovered that the fish were not grouper, but Patagonian toothfish, known in Thailand as “snow fish”.
“The 182 tons of snow fish are being held in Songkhla waiting for final decisions from authorities.
“If it is proved that the ship reported falsely that the consignment was grouper and not snow fish, the people who will be held responsible for this, including the ship’s captain and the shipping agent [South Services Co Ltd of Phuket] will have to pay fines before they may take possession of the the cargo and take it out of Thailand,” said Pongpan Wongwuttisak, Chief of the Suppression Division of Phuket Customs Office.
“However, Customs officials and working only on the import certificate with the false details. The Fisheries Office are also working on the cargo itself and there may be further infringements of the law found, with further fines.”
Pol Lt Col Panya Chaichana of the Marine Police told The Phuket News, “We are supporting the operation led by the Customs Officials because we received a Purple Notice from Interpol.”
The Purple Notice in this case is aimed at tracking down and reporting on vessels suspected of being involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU, a fancy term for poaching).
The Taishan is believed to be the MV Kunlun with a new name. The Kunlun was chased for weeks over Antarctic waters by the New Zealand Navy and the pro-environment organisation Sea Shepherd, but neither was able to board it to confirm it had a cargo or Patagonian toothfish that had been illegally fished.
Col Panya added, “Apart from the import certificate and the fish that are the responsibility of Customs and Fisheries officials, the ship was checked by Phuket Marine officials and the crew were checked by Immigration.”
South Services, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing. A company representative said, under condition of anonymity, “The Peruvian captain has already flown home and a new Indonesian skipper and crew are now in Phuket. The ship did not do anything wrong.
“Before I agreed to represent this ship I checked their certificates and the people on the ship and established that none of them were on any blacklist.
“I also checked the ship’s name and established that it was previously called the Funkau, not the Kunlun.
“The only problem is with the product in the containers. Nothing appeared wrong or weird about the online Phuket Customs registration. If it had, I would not have taken on this job.
“Now, we are waiting for Customs’ final conclusion about the ship.
“Now, it is just the [fish] that may be the cause of legal issues. But I am the agent for the ship, not the cargo, so I can’t give any opinion about that.”
Prosongsak Boonma, Head of Phuket Customs, said that the product certificate produced by the ship and its owners, a shelf company called Helvetic Celtic Alimenta, which has a registered address at a lawyers’ office in Geneva, will be examined in light of Section 38 of the Customs Act of 2005.
This states, in part, “If any vessel arriving at a port is loaded with foreign goods intended for exportation or landing elsewhere within the Kingdom, the master shall make a statement of such goods in his report...
“Any infringement of the provisions of this section shall be liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred thousand Baht, and all goods not duly reported shall be liable to detention until so reported, or until the omission is explained to the satisfaction of the Director-General.”
This leaves the possibility that the cargo may not be returned to the ship or its owners.
Patagonian toothfish, which is served in restaurants under the swankier, if inaccurate name of Chilean Seabass, sells retail for about US$60 a kilo.
So the cargo currently being held by Customs in Songkhla could be worth as much as US$12 million, or B360 million. The same amount of grouper would be worth about B60 million.