Pirates in folk stories and popular movies conjure up strong imagery: eye patches, Jolly Rogers, parrots, swashbuckling, scruffy voices that say “Aye, Matey.” But what do the lives of successful pirates look like today? And what’s being done to stop them from plundering and smuggling our ocean’s precious resources? World Wildlife Fund’s project Detect IT: Fish takes aim at these pirates and other illegal actors with this cutting-edge project that reduces a time-consuming tracking process from days to minutes.
Ginette Methot-Seare: “After nearly 15 years of lucrative, illegal activity, he was caught and convicted. The judge in this key case stated that his business activities were an ‘astonishing display of the arrogance of wealth and power.’ He destroyed evidence, and while under investigation, even hired a private I to follow an agent around. After serving prison time, the main perpetrator and his accomplices were ordered to pay 22.5 million dollars in restitution to South Africa for the damage they had done.”
Curtis Seare: “Who was this man? Arnold Bengis, a modern-day pirate.”
Ginette: “I’m Ginette.”
Curtis: “And I’m Curtis.”
Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.”
Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.”
Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production.”
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“If you’re willing to do that, a big thank you in advance, and a big thank you to those who already done it.”
“At the end of our last episode, we promised you the story of one of the biggest pirate busts in history, and we will deliver, but before we go on, if you’re new to Data Crunch, you may want to start with the last episode, which will give you more background and context.
“By some accounts, this is what happened: Arnold Bengis became incredibly wealthy after growing a business in South Africa. He had a house in Bridgehampton, New York, worth several million dollars, an apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the 41 floor, and a house in Four Beaches, an exclusive neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa.
“His 6,000-plus square foot Bridgehampton house, a large Spanish-tile stucco villa, overlooked the beautiful Mecox Bay to one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other. His six bedroom, seven full bathroom single-family home had what you’d expect to find at a palatial place: a well-manicured golf green; a luxurious pool; large, well-decorated rooms with chandeliers, and expensive furniture. When the house last sold, it went for 10 and a half million dollars. One of the agents of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, who investigated Bengis’s case even said he was in partial awe of the lifestyle Bengis was living, which was supported by illegal fishing business.
“Bengis held his money, both personal and business, in a highly complex network of trusts and asset havens. The money was scattered abroad in many different places, like Switzerland, Gibraltar, Jersey Islands, and Britain. While authorities didn’t know everything about his money, what they did know was that he had vast assets. For example, in just one year, he deposited $13 million into one of his accounts. His lawyer said that one of his several trusts was worth more than $25 million, according to the book Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish.
“I know what you’re probably thinking: ‘How did this man make so much money from illegal fishing?’ We told you in our last episode that IUU fishing rakes in between $10 billion and $23.5 billion dollars a year, and that’s a conservative estimate. The larger picture is this: When you consider that the entire world’s trade in fish and fishery products is more than $148 billion dollars and that this industry has been poorly regulated and hard to see into, it makes sense that the pirates are chasing a piece of the profits. Depending on your source, the illegal wildlife trade ranks number two, three, or four in the world’s illegal trafficking businesses, standing with drugs, firearms, and human trafficking.
“But maybe it isn’t too shocking to you that he made so much money from illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, or IUU fishing, when we consider the prices seafood can command in the United States. The Chilean Sea Bass, aka Antarctic and Patagonian Toothfish, which is actually a type of cold water cod known to some as ‘white gold,’ can bring in above $25 a pound in the United States. Stunning even while considering the price of seafood in the United States is that some high-end restaurants have even charged nearly $1,000 per plate of this fish. Why is it so popular? One quote from former food critic AA Gill may explain its popularity when he described the fish as the quote ‘most utterly delicious fish.’
“For cold-water fishers, one single season of fishing Chilean Sea Bass can yield nearly $78,000,000 million, which makes Chilean Sea Bass a highly sought after fish. Many are worried about this vulnerable fish, and people and organizations have gotten involved to protect them—from Prince Charles to the conservationist group Sea Shepherd.
“Sea Shepherd takes a tenacious boats-in-the-water approach to their conservation efforts. To give you an idea of Sea Shepherd’s style as a conservation group, it spent three and a half months chasing the pirate boat Thunder, which had been slapped with a purple notice by the International Criminal Police Organization—essentially putting in on the IUU fishing ship most wanted list. They pursued it over more than 10,000 nautical miles—across two seas and three oceans—through ice flows and a cyclone-like storm. The length of this epic pirate chase made it the world’s longest illegal fishing boat chase in modern maritime history, and probably recorded history. It ended very suspiciously with the boat’s crew seemingly intentionally sinking the ship and all its content to avoid prosecution.
“Sea Shepherd members who were on this chase could tell it was intentionally scuttled. One of Sea Shepherd’s crew members went on to the ship to try to collect any evidence, and they noticed that all the doors were tied open. If you want to try to save your ship, you’d close all other compartments to avoid the water spreading. Then there was the fact that the crew members cheered as the boat sank—not the attitude of people who are sad to see a boat go down.
“So let’s get back to Bengis: this fish, the Chilean Sea Bass, along with rock lobster, is part of what he circumvented the system to sell. His income grew as his fishing business grew massively. He caught enormous amounts of fish and lobster, which all supplied a long list of wealthy clients.
“Bengis’s illegal activities started around 1987. It involved falsifying documents to avoid regulations and to cover up the fact that he was exceeding quotas. As one example, his company applied for a South African export permit, which said that one of his containers held 3,600 pounds of rock lobster, and it didn’t indicate there was Chilean Sea Bass. In reality, the shipping container held 38,000 pounds of lobster, more than ten times the reported amount, and 4,000 pounds of toothfish, which it supposedly didn’t have.
“It wasn’t until 2001 that US officials knew he was smuggling seafood. After South African inspectors looked into one of Bengis’s shipping containers, they realized that another shipping container in the same preparation group was already on its way to Newark, New Jersey’s port. So they tipped off the United States by emailing Michele Kuruc, who was working as a lawyer for NOAA at the time. You may remember her from our last episode. Once the shipping container arrived in the United States, NOAA inspectors found a similar situation to what South African authorities had found with the other container: the documentation was way off.
“Bengis’s shadiness didn’t stop there. He used black economic empowerment programs to exploit black employees. For example, he placed these employees in sham management positions with compensation that was not proportionate. He also employed black South African women in his US factory in Portland, Maine—which they did under the guise of scientific visas—where they actually packed fish for $4 an hour.
“To add to this already bad situation, he bribed 14 South African fish inspectors, and his deputies even threatened the lives of people who got in the way of his company’s illegal work.
“As you can imagine, in addition to directly harming people, his illegal business severely damaged the South African fish stocks.”
Michele Kuruc: “The South African stocks nearly crashed because of his activity.”
Ginette: “This is Michele Kuruc. While she currently works for the World Wildlife Fund, she used to work for NOAA overseeing prosecutions. She also worked in Rome for the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, or the UN FAO, where she advised on illegal global fishing and held a specialty in enforcement operations and technology.”
Michele: “He did go to prison. He had restitution in the tens of millions of dollars.”
Ginette: “But it didn’t get to this point without a lot of investigating on the side of law enforcement, who faced resistance. As mentioned before, Bengis hired a private I to track one investigator so he knew what was going on. He also shredded papers and withheld documents required by a grand jury subpoena. At one point, he even placed a note in the trash for investigators asking them why they were combing through his trash, a defiant move.
“The US investigation went on for over two years and the full extent of Bengis’s illegal activities was impossible to track.
“According to the Baltimore Sun, one NOAA agent describes trying to work on these types of cases like this, quote ‘It’s like trying to solve a bank robbery overseas where you have a suspect but no witnesses, and the victim can’t talk.’ He also went on to say, ‘If I was gonna be a criminal, I would be in the fish and wildlife smuggling business . . . nobody has any idea what’s going on.’
Curtis: “Bengis is just one example of someone caught perpetrating IUU fishing, but there are many others involved in it. And they usually don’t get caught, and if they do, it’s not very easily.
“Consider pirate Antonio Vidal, a Spaniard who had spent more than 20 years in the fishing industry. He eventually ended up pursuing the white gold, or the Chilean Sea Bass. He’s from Galacia, an area in Spain right above Portugal, that accounts for about 50 percent of Spain’s fishing industry.
“As a side note, Spaniards really like their fish products: Spain has one of the highest consumption in Europe—second only to Portugal, and Spain’s fish consumption is close to Japan’s, which is market number three after the United States.
“Over time Spanish fish stocks depleted, forcing Spaniards to go further out to sea, and that’s exactly where Vidal went. He owned a ship called the Viarsa. This ship claims the second longest illegal fishing ship chase in modern maritime history, right after the Thunder, which we just talked about. Huge waves threatened the ship, and during this extremely dangerous, 4,000 mile chase across the Southern Ocean, the captain faced 75-mile an hour winds and wove narrowly between 70 icebergs. Why did he go to such lengths to avoid capture? At the time, the Viarsa had nearly a million dollars of toothfish onboard. The chase finally came to an end when the ship was cornered by Australian, British, and South African authorities. But two years later, the captain and the crew were acquitted and walked away.
“But while Vidal got away that time, he wasn’t so lucky in a later fishing scandal when he tried to import 53 tons of toothfish into the US using fake documents. When US agents found the false documents, Interpol issued an arrest warrant. He worked out a deal with the FBI to avoid prison time, but eventually the international community put enough pressure on Spanish authorities that he and his family members were arrested in 2016.
“But you don’t have to go far to find IUU fishing and even seafood fraud. In the Gulf of Mexico, lots of fish are poached from US waters.”
Will Ward: “Illegal actors from predominantly from Mexico going up into US waters, but also some actors coming from the Caribbean, Columbia I think has been mentioned as well as Honduras and others, and going over and fishing stocks such as red snapper, sharps, king mackerel, groupers, shrimp, and they use different types of gear, but it’s always illegal. Then they either sell them back into the United States, which is really ironic, or they just sell them there and use them for their own good in their own country, but keeping in mind that their doing so illegally.”
Ginette: “You’ve already met Will Ward. But as a reminder, and a little extra, he’s the captain and CEO of Captain’s Finest Seafood, and he’s also served on various advisory boards on IUU fishing.
“You may not realize that a lot of seafood products are mislabeled, meaning you could be paying overprice for something that isn’t what you think you’re getting.”
Michele: “There is also a real problem with substitution, mislabeling, fraud, document fraud.”
“Our partners Oceana have done a number of studies showing that this is pretty rampant in the US market. When people think they’re buying one thing and paying what should be the market price for something, they’re not getting that.”
Ginette: “Oceana’s DNA tests show that a lot of fish fraud goes in the United States. In one study, they found in the Maryland area that 38 percent of local crab cakes claiming to be made of Maryland crab were in fact composed of eight different species of crab—from Indonesia and Thailand, not Maryland.
“Another Oceana DNA study found fish in stores were mislabeled 33 percent of the time nationwide. Some fish species were even mislabeled up to 89 percent of the time, being substituted with less expensive fish species.
“According to the Baltimore Sun, chef Spike Gjerde said quote ‘the level of fraud is insane,’ and he chooses to only work directly with the Chesapeake Bay watermen.
“Essentially all someone would have to do is take imported crab meat and put it in something that’s domestically labelled. Just simply change the label and make hundreds of thousands more dollars.
“What adds to the problem is that global seafood consumption is going up, so as the demand goes up, cost goes up, and the demand is getting stronger, particularly from developing countries.”
Michele: “A number of the developing countries, a greater percentage of their population is in or approaching middle class status and as countries get more affluent, the people want to diversify their diets, and with more disposable income, often that means more desire to have more fish, more different kinds of fish, higher percentage of fish.”
Ginette: “While there are several reasons why demand for seafood is growing, there are many reasons why IUU fishing should not play a role in that demand: horrible human abuses, transnational crimes, inadequate food for impoverished people in third world countries, potential insecure jobs in the fisheries industry, and eliminating future fish stocks.
“This is where the World Wildlife Fund comes in. They’re using big data to open up and make transparent an important part of the supply chain. This and the Global Fishing Watch tool that we discussed in our last episode can be used as complementary data services aimed at similar goals.”
Michele: “You’re not going to be able to just use one tool and have it all fixed. I mean, it’s just too complex for that. There’s all sorts of challenges that exist, even with Global Fishing Watch.
“And that’s one of the reasons that we were concentrating on this other software because we want to make sure we look at as many parts of the supply chain to try to uncover those illegal activities and to basically send a signal to the criminals that it’s going to get harder to hide. It’s going to become more difficult to use your past methods, and hopefully discourage them from using future methods as well to try to put an end to all this once and for all.”
Ginette: The development of the World Wildlife Fund’s new data project, Detect IT: Fish, stems from Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Living Progress Challenge earlier last year. They’re goal is to make the lives of one million people better by 2020, and the World Wildlife Fund earned a place as one of the competition’s winners.
Michele: “We were so fortunate to be one of the winners of that contest, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise and their partners, expert coders that are a group called Topcoder, we have all collaboratively been building a brand new website that takes trade data, specifically fish trade data, and does all kinds of analytics and comparative evaluations of the data.
“Right now we’re using data from the United Nations, but our hope is to get down to an even more granular level of data and to help analysts pinpoint some of the trade flows that suggest that illegal product is moving between their particular countries.”
Ginette: “This is a really cool concept. Basically, if they see suspicious spikes in the trade flows, there could be a problem. They know this because they tested it against Arnold Bengis.”
Michele: “One of the things we did rather than looking forward, we looked backwards into areas where we knew there had been illegality. And we were able to look at a fairly well publicized case between the United States and South Africa, and we were able to see in the graphs that the software produces the spikes that occurred around the time that this bad actor was at the height of some of his illegal activity and a copy cat case that occurred a few years later as well. So we were able to run that kind of a test where we knew manually it work and then we wanted to see in the automated world whether it worked too, and it did.”
Ginette: “So what do you have to look forward to with this project? This global fish trade data website will show you the profiles and volumes of top importers, exporters, and trade partners. You’ll be able to see the data by product and by country, and it’ll allow you to conduct many different types of comparisons. Something that once took incredible amounts of time will now take a few minutes. Your results will visualize in bar graphs, line graphs, and maps. In the beginning of 2017, launch date TBD, you’ll be able to see some really amazing graphics and impressive data on their website. They’re currently testing the website, and the launch date depends on how long it takes to tweak the final product.”
Michele: “The graphics are stunning. They really help visualize, not only through maps and graphs and all sorts of comparisons, but looking at how trade data, which is not satellite based or some of the other applications of technology that, that you might be familiar with, but it’s looking at something that’s sitting right here, right under our noses that because in the past you could only do it manually and it was very time consuming, now the ability to search millions of records in a few minutes will be at our fingertips.”
Ginette: “The speed with which data analytics is letting us mine data for useful information will change our oceans for better.”
Michele: “It’s really an interesting time to be in this field. There’s so many exciting developments on the technological side, the legal side. In every way, it’s just really exciting.”
Ginette: “So watch out, pirates, there are more eyes on you than you think.
“Some of you have reached out to us with legitimate concerns about how to avoid purchasing fish or seafood products from IUU fishing. I know that for me that’s become a legitimate concern after hearing these stories. So I reached out to experts for advice, experts in the field, and Karen from OceanUnite had this to say when she responded to my email:
“One of the best resources we have is Greenpeace USA’s Grocery Store Scorecard. They’ve reviewed the fish purchasing policies of each supermarket, the transparency of those supermarkets’ sourcing, and whether those supermarkets sell any of the 23 species listed on the Greenpeace red list of species, which we shouldn’t even consider buying.
“That gives you the ability to vote with your money by only going to stores to purchase fish that have scored highly on this list.
“But what if you don’t live near these stores? There are actually a few other tools that help you. Oceana has a list of commonly mislabeled seafood to look out for, and never hesitate to ask questions of the fishmonger at your local supermarket—they need to hear your questions to realize that you actually care about this and to change where they’re purchasing. Also, use can use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app. It’s downloadable, and it’s a great tool that you can whip out while at the seafood counter of your local store.
“And, finally, watch what’s happening in Congress. This is the single most effective tool to prevent seafood products caught by IUU fishing from coming into our market.
“For the transcript, our sources, and links to these resources, head over to our show notes at vaultanalytics.com/datacrunch, and select our most recent episode.
“We’d love to hear from you. If you have any questions, comments, constructive criticism, please send it our way at vaultanalytics.com
“Special thanks to Michele Kuruc, Will Ward, and Adam Reyer for taking time to interview with us for this series.”
Sources—How to Avoid Purchasing or Selling IUU Fishing Products:
https://www.state.gov/e/oes/rls/fs/2009/115007.htm (Used to be FAQ site on Chilean Sea Bass)
“Impact intermezzo” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
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