John Ross hot on the heels of toothfish pirates

The 19-day chase of a Uraguayan trawler with a suspected hold full of poached Patagonian toothfish is expected to reach a climax within hours.

It emerged for the first time on Tuesday that the most powerful salvage tug in South Africa, theJohn Ross, has joined the chase, and is now within striking distance of the fleeing Viarsa 1.

The tug has Australian customs and South African fisheries officials on board, as well as members of a private security company. Horst Kleinschmidt, head of marine and coastal management (MCM) in the Department of Environment Affairs, said shortly after 4.30pm that the John Ross, travelling at an average 17 knots, had overtaken the SA Augulhas, which had earlier joined an Australian

fisheries inspectorate vessel, the Southern Supporter, in the chase.

News of the John Ross’ departure was kept secret so that the fleeing Viarsa 1 did not get news of the fast tug steaming south to intercept her.

All four vessels were now at a position 45 degrees south, 16 degrees west, about 3 060km from Cape Town in the middle of the roaring forties.

A fifth ship, a British fisheries patrol vessel, the Dorada, was steaming east from the Falklands towards the interception point. He said the John Ross, which last week was one of three tugs trying to free the stranded Sealand Express in Table Bay, sailed on Friday after being hired by the Australian government.

”She joined the chase at the request of the Australians; they are leaving nothing to chance.”

Kleinschmidt said it was expected the inspectors would try to board the Viarsa 1 by using powerful dinghies from the Southern Supporter, although if necessary a helicopter from the SA Agulhas would be called in.

The Uruguayan has been chased by the Southern Supporter since it was first spotted 19 days ago within Australia’s economic exclusion zone near Heard and McDonald Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

The suspected poacher has ignored several calls to heave to and allow Australian inspectors to board.

The SA Agulhas joined in the chase last week.

Later on Tuesday, Kleinschmidt said the arrest of the vessel and its crew would be effected by the Australians, who would rely on their South African counterparts for back-up, should this be needed.

”They are making the arrest because the Patagonian toothfish was allegedly poached in their EEZ.”

No resistance was expected from the Uruguayan crew.

”They know the longer they resist, the more severe the penalties they face,” he said.

There were an estimated 40 crew aboard the Viarsa 1.

Conditions at the interception point were currently ”very icy and rough”.

An MCM official said the boarding party would carry ”sufficient firepower” for the operation, but again stressed that no resistance was expected. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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