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Friday, 13 April, 2001, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
High-seas chase nets fish poachers
Map showing pursuit
Australian and South African troops have seized a Togo-registered fishing boat and its crew off South Africa, ending a 10-day international chase across the Southern and Indian Oceans.

The South Tommy and its illicit cargo of rare Patagonian toothfish - estimated to be worth more than $500,000 - is being towed back to Freemantle in Western Australia.

The toothfish, also known as Chilean Sea Bass, Mero and Black Hake, is a prized delicacy in Japan and the United States.

Patagonian toothfish
Scientific name: Dissostichus eleginoides

Live on the bottom at 300m-2,500m

Eat fish, squid, crabs and prawns

Can reach 2.2 metres and weigh 120kg

Live for more than 45 years

Do not breed until 8-10 years old

Important part of sperm whale and elephant seal diet

Some toothfish have antifreeze proteins to protect them in sub-zero waters

It is so valuable in the fishing industry that is also sometimes called White Gold and illegal fishing is rife.

Fishing is strictly regulated and scientists fear that unless controls are enforced, the fish could be commercially extinct in a couple of years.

An Australian patrol boat first spotted the 50 metre-long boat almost two weeks ago fishing in Australian waters near the Heard Island-McDonald Island group off Antarctica.

It had no licence to be there and the patrol boat approached and tried to escort the boat to Australia.

As they approached land, the boat turned west and took off at speed, heading for Africa.

Hot pursuit

The patrol boat gave chase and a 3,000 km race ensued, with the two vessels sometimes less than 1,000 metres apart.

As they approached the Cape of Good Hope, the Australians requested South African support.

Had we not intercepted it when we did, it would have gone on until the fish stopped biting

Wilson Tuckey, Fisheries Minister

The South Tommy was finally seized on Thursday by 40 Australian troops using South African navy vessels.

They found more than 100 tonnes of fish on board.

The Australian Fisheries Minister, Wilson Tuckey, said the action had averted a disaster.

"Had we not intercepted it when we did, it would have gone on until the fish stopped biting, so it would have ended up with 200 or 300 tonnes, which would have been tragic," he told the French news agency AFP.

The captain of the 44-man crew, who is reported to be Spanish, could face a fine of up to $250,000 and confiscation of his boat if found guilty of poaching.

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