Bangun Perkasa Case Moves Forward
Friday, March 09 2012
Five months after its seizure, the stateless fishing vessel Bangun Perkasa is still tied up at the dock in Unalaska - but not for much longer. Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge formally declared the vessel unclaimed. Now the government will seek forfeiture so the Bangun Perkasa can be sold – either for scrap or at auction.
When the Coast Guard intercepted the Bangun Perkasa on the high seas last year, the boat was setting a drift net. Frequently referred to as ‘curtains of death’, drift nets are indiscriminate in their harvest and detrimental to ocean ecosystems. They’re also illegal on the high seas, so the crew of the Bangun Perkasa tried to cut their net and flee the Coast Guard.
They were unsuccessful. The vessel was escorted into Unalaska and the crew deported to their home countries. But no country wanted to claim the vessel, so the task of locating its owner fell to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Law Enforcement office.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Barkeley, who’s responsible for the case against the vessel, says it’s been a long process.
“Not only was the information about this case sent directly to the contact number provided by the master, but in addition, notice of the lawsuit itself and the steps that needed to be taken to join the case and claim the vessel, were translated into Chinese - because that’s the nationality of the crew – and published several times in the Asian Wall Street Journal, in a seafood trade journal and even in the Anchorage Daily News.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, no one replied. According to court documents, NOAA Law Enforcement also did some digging into the paper and money trails of the vessel, but that office said they couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
Finding no owner, the government filed in early March for a default judgment against the vessel – essentially a formal declaration that no one had shown up to challenge the allegation of illegal fishing. A judge signed off on the motion and as a result, the government can now seek forfeiture of the Bangun Perkasa. Barkeley says it’s been a long time coming.
“Not all of these cases end up being prosecuted in court, but the Bangun Perkasa, for example, was spotted doing this type of fishing by the Canadian Air Force more than once in the last four or five years, and the resources were just not available at the time to get a boat out on the ocean and board the vessel. So, we have every reason to think that the Bangun Perkasa has been fishing illegally like this many more times than just this once, when it was caught.”
The trick now, Barkeley says, is making sure it doesn’t end up ‘back on the streets’, so to speak.
“It’s kind of like the maritime equivalent of a [drug dealer’s] beater car and we want to make sure it doesn’t go back to the same line of work. That’s why selling it for scrap is one attractive alternative under consideration.”
Barkeley says the sale is not likely to generate a lot of money, regardless of whether it’s sold for scrap or auctioned off as-is.
“This [sic] was discussed that this is not a multi-million dollar vessel and that in all likelihood might cost some money by the time it was forfeited. But the decision was made that the gravity of the harm outweighed those expenses. Also the message to the international community that we’re not just going to let it go on. You see, if people knew that all they had to do was do this type of fishing in a boat that wasn’t worth dragging back, then they would know that they would be able to get away with it.”
NOAA spokesperson Lesli Bales-Sherrod says the total cost of keeping the boat docked in Unalaska since September has been $219,000. The Coast Guard covered the initial cost of de-ratting the ship and getting it port-ready, which was estimated at $200,000. Sale of the vessel’s catch netted NOAA $33,000, which is currently being held in an escrow account. Bales-Sherrod says the money for the vessel's upkeep will come out of NOAA’s Asset Forfeiture Fund and won’t affect the agency’s operating budget.
Barkeley says a decree of forfeiture will be filed in the next few weeks, at which point NOAA will be able to move forward with disposal of the vessel.