Dramatic chase across the Southern Ocean

Aug 16, 2003
Author: P&S

The Australian government has vowed to continuing pursuing the Uruguayan-flagged fishing vessel Viarsa 1 despite wild seas and gale force winds and has called on several Southern Hemisphere countries, including South Africa and Uruguay, and the Royal Navy which has warships based at the Falklands, to help apprehend the 60m ship.

Australian Fisheries Minister Senator Ian Macdonald said the Australian Customs & Fisheries patrol vessel Southern Supporter, which first made contact with Viarsa 1 within Australian territorial waters on Thursday, 7 August, would remain in pursuit of the Spanish-crewed fishing vessel until Viarsa 1 either reached a suitable port or headed for Australia.

The fishing vessel ignored calls to head for an Australian port where its catch could be inspected and instead sped off westwards from the waters of Heard and MacDonald Islands, which lie due south of the French-held Kerguelen Islands midway between Australia and South Africa.

Viarsa 1 was identified last year on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources’ Red List as a suspected poacher of the endangered Patagonian toothfish species. The ship also appears on the Greenpeace list of vessels suspected of illegally fishing toothfish.

Weather conditions in the area of the chase remain extremely poor with rough seas and intermittent ice and snow.

“Despite these severe conditions, the crew aboard the Southern Supporter are in good spirits and they are just as determined as the Australian government to continue this chase,” said Senator Chris Ellison, Australia’s Minister for Justice & Customs.

South Africa’s polar supply ship SA Agulhas sailed from Cape Town on Tuesday (12 August) for Marion Island, which lies on the route taken by the fleeing Uruguayan ship.

SA Agulhas is carrying two helicopters on board, intended for the transfer of building materials for a new weather station on Marion Island, and one of these, the larger Sikorsky would probably have to be offloaded at Marion Island because the smaller Bell helicopter also on board is unable to take off with the larger helicopter on the deck.

South African officials have yet to confirm whether SA Agulhas will take part in helping apprehend Viarsa 1, although the request delayed the ship’s departure by several hours. It has not been confirmed why this delay was necessary.

Two years ago in a similar chase across the Roaring Forties two South African ships, including the strike craft SAS Galeshewe intercepted another fleeing fishing vessel, the South Tomi, on behalf of Australian Customs & Fisheries officials who flew to Cape Town and sailed with the ships to make the interception.

SA Agulhas is expected to arrive off Marion Island tomorrow (Sunday) or early Monday (18 August).

The toothfish species, which is found mainly in the Southern Ocean, grows up to 2.2m in length and can weigh up to 130kg, The fish sells for up to USD100 kg and has rapidly become overfished and endangered. Stocks off South Africa all but disappeared after just five years of commercial fishing.

The annual quota for Patagonian toothfish is 10,000 tonnes but up to three times that amount is taken illegally each year.

Port Louis in Mauritius has become one of the discharge ports for fishing vessels operating in the Southern Ocean and this has led to strong pressure being brought on the Mauritian government to prevent the Indian Ocean port being used as a base for the transhipment of the illegal catches. Viarsa 1 has been photographed in Port Louis on several occasions.

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