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Conservation Group Rescues Crew of Sinking Ship It Had Pursued for Months

The Thunder, said by Sea Shepherd to be a poaching vessel, sinks, bow-up, on April 6. Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd, the Australian conservation group that has been chasing an illegal fishing ship through the world's oceans for almost four months, rescued the crew of that very ship Monday morning after the vessel sank "in suspicious circumstances" off the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, the group said.

The captain of the Bob Barker, one of two Sea Shepherd ships that responded to distress signals, said it appeared that the Thunder had been intentionally scuttled. The Thunder, one of six illegal vessels that Sea Shepherd has dubbed the Bandit 6 and has been pursuing for months, has also been sought by Interpol since 2013 for illegally poaching more than $76 million worth of endangered Patagonian toothfish around the world.

"Usually when a vessel is sinking, the captain will close all hatches so as to maintain buoyancy," Sea Shepherd quoted Peter Hammarstedt, captain of the Bob Barker, as saying. "However, on the Thunder, the reverse was done — doors and hatches were tied open, and the fish hold was opened. It is an incredibly suspicious situation, to say the least."

"The Bob Barker boarding party were able to secure and remove a computer, mobile phones and charts from the Thunder," Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said on Facebook. "The logbook seems to have been removed or destroyed. Secured evidence also included a whole toothfish now in the freezer of the Bob Barker."

Rescue operations were under way for the 40 crew members of the Thunder, Sea Shepherd said. It said they were being retrieved by the Bob Barker and transferred to the second ship, the

Rescue operations were under way for the 40 crew members of the Thunder, Sea Shepherd said. It said they were being retrieved by the Bob Barker and transferred to the second ship, the Sam Simon. The vessels are named for the U.S. game show host and the late co-creator of "The Simpsons," respectively, both of them noted advocates for conservation and animal rights.

The marine tracking service Vessel Finder confirmed that both Sea Shepherd ships were being tracked off the coast of Sao Tome and Principe late Monday.

The Bob Barker and the Sam Simon had been chasing the Thunder since December through the Southern, Indian and Atlantic oceans as part of what it calls Operation Icefish — an operation to overtake and hand over to authorities all of the so-called Bandit 6.

Another one of the vessels, the Nigerian-flagged Viking, was detained last month in Malaysia for violations of Malaysian maritime law, while a third, the Kunlun, was captured earlier last month by the New Zealand navy.