In the Paloma V docked at New Zealand’s Auckland port

More than 200 tons of fish weighed down the boat’s hold: sea bass slated for U.S. dinner plates, shark fins headed to Portugal and fish liver oil for a Japanese cosmetics company. The fishing master had submitted a required declaration that the ship had not done business with pirate fishing vessels. But fisheries investigators Phil Kerr and Dominic Hayden decided to take a closer look.

The Paloma V was half owned by an Uruguayan subsidiary of Vidal Armadores. And Kerr and Hayden knew that a U.S. judge had ordered Vidal Pego to stay away from the toothfish trade.

After copying the hard drives of the Paloma’s computers as part of the port inspection, Kerr and Hayden discovered evidence that they thought might piece together what law enforcement officials from the U.S. to New Zealand had suspected for years: that Vidal Armadores was a central player in a network of pirate fishing vessels targeting toothfish in the Antarctic.

Records from the hard drive showed blacklisted vessels relied on counterparts with legal licenses from places such as Spain, Uruguay and Namibia, the New Zealand investigators found. Receipts found aboard the Paloma V established that Vidal Armadores paid to provision the boats. And numerous emails detailed the sharing of bait, fuel and crew.

One of Vidal Armadores’ partners in the Paloma V was interviewed by the inspectors, and they showed him document after document, including photos of the vessel illegally transshipping supplies to the Chilbo San 33 – an earlier incarnation of the Xiong Nu Baru, one of those North Korean-flagged ships spotted this year. Screen-shots from one of the on-board computers showed multiple blacklisted vessels tracked through an online system called Fleetview, suggesting a close coordination among the vessels in the network.

Questions about the Paloma V are the only ones that visibly upset Vidal Pego. He explains that it all was “completely outrageous.” He says the computer was the fishing master’s personal laptop. But the New Zealand inspection file obtained by ICIJ shows three on-board, stand-alone computers were inspected.

To Vidal Pego this case is just more of the same: “There’s no point in talking about fishing, since I haven’t had anything to do with fishing for a long time now.”

The computers contained emails to and from (Vidal Pego’s full name is Manuel Antonio Vidal Pego). Vidal Pego dismisses knowledge of the email account or any network: “I – or nobody I know – is in any type of syndicate.”

Vidal Pego says transshipments are common in the high seas because “you cannot go to the supermarket [there].” To him, vessels meet to trade food or even movies – nothing else.

Corporate records also appeared to tie Vidal Pego to the toothfish business well after he promised the U.S. judge he would get out of the trade. Vidal Pego was one of two managers of Vidal Armadores’ parent company, Viarsa Cartera.

Photographs showed transshipments to blacklisted vessels

“What Vidal was doing was very organized, well structured,” Kerr said. “He had a legitimate fleet supplying the illegitimate fleet. When we saw this material, we saw he was obviously busier than ever.”

International arrest warrant

Of more than 40 allegations related to illegal fishing, the Vidals or their affiliates only landed in court six times.

U.S. officials seized an illegal shipment of their toothfish in 2002. Nothing ever came of that case. In 2004, however, another Vidal vessel, the Chilbo San 33 sold an illegal shipment to a U.S. buyer, according to court records. A federal prosecutor in Miami charged Vidal Pego and one of his Uruguayan companies with doctoring the records to disguise the origin of the fish.