SA steams after the Patagonian pirates

The South African polar vessel SA Agulhas was on Wednesday steaming south at full speed from Marion Island to intercept the fleeing Uruguayan trawler Viarsa 1.

If the interception is successful, a boarding party from the Agulhas will arrest the South American fishing vessel and its crew on Friday or Saturday.

An Australian fisheries patrol boat, Southern Supporter, has been chasing the trawler since it was first spotted 13 days ago near Heard and McDonald islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

Australian authorities have asked for South Africa’s help in catching the Viarsa 1, which is believed to be carrying a cargo of illegally-caught Patagonian toothfish.

Last reports said the Viarsa I was running west towards South America, but has been slowed down by ice floes, which it is having difficulty negotiating.

The Southern Supporter, which does not have reinforced bows capable of dealing with the ice, is keeping pace to the north, out of the floes.

Earlier this week, logistical problems prevented the SA Agulhas leaving Marion Island immediately to assist the Australians, but the vessel eventually got underway on Tuesday.

According to Marine and Coastal Management head Horst Kleinschmidt, it can make 10 knots ”in most weather conditions”.

”The SA Agulhas left Marion yesterday (Tuesday) heading in a south-westerly direction to get to the point close to the Australian vessel and the Viarsa 1.

”This will take three to four days,” he said.

Top speed of the Viarsa 1 was estimated to be ”two or three knots slower” than the SA Agulhas.

On arrival at the rendezvous point, an attempt would be made by fisheries inspectors to board the Viarsa.

”Our guys will try to board her. This will probably be done by dinghy.

”Our inspectors have sidearms, but we don’t expect any resistance from the Viarsa’s crew,” Kleinschmidt said.

If the Uruguayan vessel’s holds are found to contain illegally-caught fish, the Viarsa will be seized in terms of the United Nations law of the sea convention.

Kleinschmidt said there was a ”very big likelihood” the arrested trawler would be brought to Cape Town, although this depended on her fuel situation.

He said South African authorities had been in regular contact with their Australian counterparts.

The Heard and McDonald islands, Australian possessions, are located about 4000km south-west of Perth. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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