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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 August, 2003, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Toothfish 'pirates' held after chase
Australian Customs and Fisheries officers and armed South African enforcement officers board the Viarsa
Armed officers from South Africa and Australia ended the epic chase

A trawler suspected of fishing illegally for the endangered Patagonian Toothfish in the Australian fishing zone off Antarctica is being escorted back to Australia after a three-week chase.

The crew of 40 on the Uruguayan fishing boat Viarsa offered no resistance when Australian and South African fisheries officers boarded the vessel 3,000 kilometres southwest of Cape Town.

The crew face possible jail sentences and heavy fines of up to $550,000 (US$357,500). The Australians say the toothfish allegedly caught by the trawler could be worth $2 million on the black market.

Australia's justice minister Chris Ellison said the arrests sent a message that Australia was "determined to crack down" on anyone tempted to fish illegally in its waters.

Australian Fisheries Minister said the captain's log suggested there were 85 tonnes of toothfish on board the ship, but while this was not confirmed, he said there were "certainly fish on board" the trawler.

International effort

A British ship had joined Australian and South African vessels pursuing the Viarsa, which was first sighted on 7 August in Australia's fishing zone, 4,000 kilometres (2,200 nautical miles) south-west of the mainland.

Patagonian Toothfish on slab (image: Caroline Raymakers)
The Patagonian Toothfish can command huge prices
The Australian patrol boat Southern Supporter gave chase, suspecting the trawler had been fishing illegally.

The Viarsa's captain ignored repeated requests to stop, but the Australians stuck with him, battling through the huge winter seas of the Southern Ocean, at times dodging icebergs.

A week ago, a South African icebreaker joined the chase, followed by the British fisheries protection ship, the Dorada, normally based in the Falkland Islands.

Uruguay acts

Conditions at the interception point, about 3,000 kilometres south-west of Cape Town, were described as extremely severe.

All four vessels are said to have encountered snowstorms as well as the full ravages of the Southern Ocean.

Nonetheless, the Uruguayan ship had doggedly continued to make for South America at full speed.

Earlier, Uruguay had said it would allow Australia to inspect the vessel if it finally reached port in Montevideo.

Its ambassador to Canberra, Pedro Mo-Amaro, said the Viarsa had ignored Uruguay's advice to head for an appropriate port and had severed all communication.

1. Trawler spotted off Heard Island. Australian patrol ship Southern Supporter gives chase
2. Trawler ordered to stop, but continues on towards Montevideo
3. Trawler finally stopped 3,000km south west of Cape Town, crew detained

The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"Custom officers suspected they were poaching"

Net closing on toothfish 'pirates'
22 Aug 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Hot pursuit of toothfish 'pirates'
18 Aug 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Toothfish at risk from illegal catches
15 Aug 01  |  Science/Nature
High-seas chase nets fish poachers
13 Apr 01  |  Asia-Pacific

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