Dramatic chase of Viarsa 1 across the Southern Ocean

Aug 18, 2003
Author: P&S

Questions are being asked why Uruguayan authorities failed to monitor the movements of the Uruguayan-flagged long-line fishing vessel Viarsa 1, which is being chased across the Southern Ocean by an Australian customs & fisheries patrol vessel, Southern Supporter (see News report dated 16 August).

According to the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO), which includes several prominent South African fishing companies among its members, Uruguay, as the flag state of the Viarsa 1 has an international obligation and legal responsibility to monitor all Uruguayan licensed toothfish fishing vessels.

The organisation says that satellite vessel monitoring systems (VMS) must be used to monitor the fishing areas of every licensed toothfish fishing vessel working in CCAMLR waters.

CCAMLR consists of 24 members nations (including Uruguay) of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

In addition to ensuring that fishing vessels are operating where they are supposed to be, VMS forms an integral part of toothfish catch documentation. VMS reports are used to verify that fishing is undertaken within internationally recognised rules and regulations, and these are used to generate legal catch documents – a sort of passport for toothfish products.

These documents travel with toothfish products from the point of offloading to the point of sale and help to assure customers that the catch was legal and achieved within some of the strictest environmental and fisheries resource management guidelines in the world, says COLTO.

The association suggests that Viarsa 1’s operators and/or owners may have been falsifying satellite position reports to the Uruguayan government, which if true would have major ramifications not only for Uruguay but the CCAMLR’s entire method of monitoring vessels.

The South American country gave an assurance in 2002 that it was monitoring the fishing operations of all Uruguayan licensed fishing vessels on a daily basis. By the weekend Uruguay had not given Viarsa 1 any order to halt for inspection.

Viarsa 1 is now reported stuck in the ice about 1,000 sea miles from Cape Town, with the Australian vessel patrolling nearby.

Viarsa 1 was listed last year on the CCAMLR Red List as a suspected poacher of the endangered Patagonian toothfish species and the ship also appears on a Greenpeace list of vessels accused of illegally fishing toothfish.

According to the Red List Viarsa 1 has a permit to fish on the High Seas excluding the CCAMLR Convention area – the latter includes the region in which the ship was intercepted by the Australians. The vessel is also suspected of previously fishing illegally within the South African EEZ around Prince Edward and Marion Islands.

The dramatic chase across the Southern Ocean began on August 7 about 2 200 nautical miles from Perth, within the economic exclusion zone of the Australian Heard and MacDonald islands. Crew on board the Viarsa 1 ignored requests to head for an Australian port for inspection and sped off westwards.

Australian authorities called for international assistance, including South Africa, which has the Antarctic supply ship SA Agulhas in the area of Marion Islands. SA Agulhas is equipped with two helicopters but first has to offload steel building supplies before any assistance can be given.

British warships based in the Falklands are likely to be asked to intervene should Viarsa 1 reach the South Atlantic.

Meanwhile two South Africa strike craft, SAS Galeshewe and SAS Makhanda, which were making a courtesy visit to Walvis Bay in Namibia, cut their call short and returned hurriedly to Simon’s Town. SAS Galeshewe and another navy vessel SAS Protea assisted the Australians with the interception of another fleeing fishing vessel South Tomi two years ago, also in the Southern Ocean.

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