Vladivostok 2000 (Lafayette): Floating Fish Factory

Vladivosktok 2000, pictured here under one of its previous names, is the largest fishing vessel in the world.

While Atlantic Dawn is the largest trawler in the world, the largest fishing vessel is the Vladivostok 2000. Formerly known as the Lafayette (as well as many other names), the Vladivosktok 2000, is not a trawler and has no capacity to catch fish or haul nets on board. Instead, it operates as a floating fish factory, sorting, processing and freezing the catches of other vessels at sea. This allows the trawlers which accompany Vladivosktok 2000 to operate much more efficiently and spend more time fishing, while the processed and frozen fish from Vladivosktok 2000 can be sent straight to shore and then directly to market. The vessel has been involved in many controversies and has carried out illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing across the world and has been detained at a Peruvian port and the ship’s owners have been issued with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for illegal fishing and causing pollution. Despite this Vladivosktok 2000 has operated as recently as 2021, with its name, owners, port of registration and the flag it sails under constantly being changed to avoid detection.

Size and Operation

The scale of the Vladivostok 2000 is vast. It is 288 metres long and 32 metres wide and displaces 49,137 tons. To put this into perspective it is longer and has a higher displacement than France’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle, and more than double the displacement of the Invincible-class aircraft carriers Britain used to fight the Falklands War. Even the US Navy’s Nimitz-class supercarriers are only forty-five metres longer than the Vladivostok 2000.

Vladivostok 2000 Size Comparison
Size comparison of the Vladivostok 2000 and US, French and British aircraft carriers.

Acting as a mother ship and floating fish factory, Vladivosktok 2000 is designed to stay at sea all year round, only coming into port for periodic maintenance requirements. As many as twelve trawlers may work alongside Vladivosktok 2000, catching species such as Pacific jack mackerel and Peruvian anchoveta in the South Pacific, or Alaskan pollock in the North Pacific. Once the trawlers have caught their maximum capacity of fish they will pull alongside the pumping stations on the port side of the ship. There are two pumping stations allowing two trawlers to be unloaded of their catch simultaneously, plus a third pumping station at the stern which is used in bad weather and rough sea conditions when it is too dangerous to pull alongside the ship.

The fish are pumped out of the trawler’s nets using a complex system of suction tubes and placed into one of the Vladivosktok 2000’s thirty-two refrigeration tanks, each of which has a capacity of 10,000 cubic metres. An automated system grades the fish by size before crew members inspect and classify the fish on a conveyor belt system. The fish are then sent to the ship’s freezing stations, where over 200 plate freezers are able to freeze the fish into blocks at minus 26 degrees centigrade. Each day the vessel can produce 1,500 tons of graded and frozen fish. There are twelve forklift trucks on board which are used to move and stack pallets of the frozen fish blocks.

Charles De Gaulle
The Vladivostok 2000 is longer and has a higher displacement than France’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles De Gaulle (pictured above).

Transporter ships sail out to Vladivosktok 2000 to collect the frozen fish, negating the need for it to come back to port to unload catch. Fuel, food and crew are also transferred to and from Vladivostok 2000 while it is at sea. The fleet of trawlers which work alongside Vladivosktok 2000 (which have included the 71-metre Pacific Voyager and the 67-metre Pacific Hunter, although it is currently unclear which trawlers have worked with the vessel when it was last at sea) never need to return to port to unload their catch, nor do they need to grade and freeze it themselves onboard saving huge amounts of fuel and maximising the amount of time which can be spent fishing. An article on the Gizmodo website in 2011 stated that Vladivosktok 2000 (or the Lafayette as it was known at the time) carries out the same amount of fish processing as seven standard factory fishing ships, and saves around thirty-five tons of fuel daily.

Construction and Conversion to a Fish Processing Factory

The ship was built by the Nippon Kokan steel and shipbuilding company in Yokohama, Japan in 1980. Originally built as an oil tanker and named the Freeport Chief, the vessel operated in this role until 2008 when it was bought by Pacific Andes International Holding, a Hong Kong-based international fishing company. A Chinese shipyard was then commissioned to transform the tanker into a floating fish factory which would be used as a mothership for a fleet of trawlers. The cost of the conversion has been estimated at between $67 million and $100 million. Work was completed in 2009 and the ship, now renamed the Lafayette, was the world’s largest fishing vessel and was ready to go to sea.

As the Lafayette

The Pacific Andes company had a reputation for finding underexploited species of fish and then successfully re-branding and marketing them to consumers. The company made found initial success by catching Alaskan pollock, a species which at one time had little appeal to consumers but became hugely commercially valuable, with three million tons now caught each year from the North Pacific and fish products such as Birdseye fish cakes and fish fingers and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish® sandwiches being made with this species.

Pacific Andres soon put the Lafayette (sailing under a Belize flag) and its fleet of accompanying trawlers to work in the South Pacific Ocean, catching Pacific jack mackerel and Peruvian anchoveta. The company believed that both of these species were underexploited and there was great growth potential in exporting these catches to emerging markets in Africa. A 2009 article on the Channel News Asia website stated that Ng Joo Siang, the managing director of Pacific Andes, said the company aimed to catch 300,000 tons of fish in the first year the Lafayette would be operating.

Changes in Name and Ownership

The Lafayette continued to operate throughout the 2010s, but the vessel changed name and ownership a number of times and has sailed under the flags of multiple countries. At some point its name was changed to the Vermacape, before possibly being changed back to the Lafayette and then eventually to the Damanzaihao. The flag the vessel has sailed under has also changed many times. Since its conversion to a fish factory ship it has operated under Moldovan, Peruvian, Belizean, Russian, Mongolian, Maltese and Dominican flags. During this time there were also periods of time where it was not clear where the vessel was operating, who its owners were, or where the catches it made were being exported to. At some point, possibly around 2014, ownership of the vessel was transferred from Pacific Andes to a company called Sustainable Fishing Resources S.A.C. This Peru-based company was a subsidiary of China Fishery Group Ltd, a Hong-Kong based industrial fishing company. Under its new owners the vessel continued to operate in the South Pacific.

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

In 2014 the illegal and unregulated fishing which the vessel, at that point named the Damanzaihao, had been taking part in came to light. The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), an intergovernmental organisation which enforces sustainable fishing in the South Pacific Ocean, said that the Damanzaihao had spent a “prolonged presence in the SPRFMO area without authorisation” and had not declared any catches to the SPRFMO. Other nations also expressed their concerns over the way in which the vessel had been operating. The Chilean government said that the Damanzaihao’s fishing in their waters “seriously undermine[ed] trust and confidence” and the French and New Zealand governments both said that the ships’s owners had provided inaccurate information about the quantity of fish the Damanzaihao could process and hold. For these offences, the owners of the Damanzaihao were fined $800,000 in 2016, which was not paid.

Chimbote, Peru
Chimbote, Peru

It is unclear where the vessel was operating in the second half of 2016 and throughout 2017, but in April 2018 the Damanzaihao was reportedly sold to a Russian-owned, Singapore-based company. In June 2018 action was eventually taken and the vessel was seized by the Peruvian authorities and held at a port in the city of Chimbote. The owners of the vessel were charged with illegal fishing and causing pollution in the nation’s waters. The marine activist group Sea Shepherd had been tracking the movements of the vessel and provided assistance and additional evidence to the Peruvian government. Sea Shepherd’s president, Paul Watson, was quoted in the Telegraph as saying:

“We will work hard to ensure that other potential flag states follow suit should the Damanzaihao ever be allowed to leave Peruvian waters. If it ends up on the other side of the world, I hope it is in the form of paperclips, after it has been scrapped.”

However, after being held for a month the Damanzaihao was allowed to leave after a ruling by the Peruvian justice system cleared the current Russian owners to take possession of the vessel. It is believed that the Damanzaihao’s release may have been triggered when its former owners, China Fishery Group Ltd, who paid at least some of the fines which they had been given when the Damanzaihao was under their ownership.

Following its release from Peru, the Damanzaihao resumed fishing in international waters. In late 2018 it was re-supplied at sea by the Cook Islands-registered oil tanker Hai Soon 26 and also berthed at Balboa, Panama in the summer of 2018 and in Dalian, China in September of that year. China, Panama and the Cook Islands were all reprimanded by the SPRFMO for providing assistance to the vessel and ignoring their obligations to stop IUU fishing.

Renamed the Vladivosktok 2000

In February 2019 the vessel was given yet another name. Renamed the Vladivosktok 2000 by its new owners and was reflagged as a Russian ship and given a new homeport in the Russian city of its name. According to the website IUU Vessels, the Vladivosktok 2000 gained authorisation to legally fish in the North Pacific for mackerel and sardines in 2019 and 2022. This new legal fishing led to the SPRFMO de-listing the vessel from its IUU list, although it remains listed as an IUU vessel by other organisations such as the Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement (SIOFA).

In mid-2021 the Vladivosktok 2000 was reportedly in the Sea of Japan close to its home port. Since that date the location and operations of the vessel are unknown. Websites which track marine traffic in real-time show no information for the Vladivosktok 2000 from mid-2021 onwards. It is possible that it is in port in Russia undergoing repairs or maintenance, or that it is being used as a port-based fish processing facility and is processing and freezing fish without being at sea.

Ongoing Issues and the Future of the Vladivostok 2000

Jack Mackerel
The Vladivostok 2000 has mostly targeted species such as Pacific jack mackerel, although its current activities are unknown.

The existence and continued operation of the Vladivosktok 2000 (and the many other names it has operated under) highlights two issues which are facing the world’s fisheries. The first is the immense size and incredible catching/processing power of the very largest fishing vessels mean that they always become controversial. Like the Atlantic Dawn, FV Margiris and the Kirkella, such vessels can catch (or process) such huge quantities of fish that it becomes difficult for them to find places to operate as few countries will provide them with quotas to fish profitably. Furthermore, such vessels are attracting increasing levels of negative attention as environmental campaigners, conservationists, anglers and the general public become increasingly aware of the damage such large scale vessels cause to fish stocks. The same is true of the Vladivostok 2000. The opportunities for it to fish legitimately are so few that its owners instead made the decision for the vessel to operate illegally

This leads to the second issue the Vladivosktok 2000 highlights, which is how difficult it is to stop illegal ships from fishing, even when supposedly powerful intergovernmental organisations have declared them to be illegal ISS ships. The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation has fifteen members including the USA, China, Australia and the entire European Union. Despite this, it proved incapable of meaningful action to stop the Vladivosktok 2000 from operating even once the vessel was declared to be an IUU ship, and when it was eventually detained in Peru it was released and free to continue fishing after a month. There are hundreds of vessels listed as IUU ships across the world, and yet it appears that little can be done to stop them due to the difficulty of identifying such vessels and the complexities of maritime law.

It remains to be seen if, in the coming years, the Vladivosktok 2000 will re-emerge to process fish caught on the high seas once again.

Note: This article was originally written in 2012 when the vessel was named the Lafayette. The article was re-written in 2022 to reflect recent developments. Events which have taken place after this date will not be reflected in the text above.