Uruguayan 'pirate' trawler to arrive in Australia for probe

A fishing trawler which sparked a marathon chase across the Southern Ocean after it was accused of illegally fishing the endangered Patagonian Toothfish is due in Western Australia on Friday, the government said.

The long-line trawler Viarsa is due in the port of Fremantle for an investigation into Australia’s accusations that it had been fishing illegally in its remote sub-Antarctic waters, the fisheries ministry said on Thursday.

The incident prompted a marathon chase of the vessel by Australian officials and resulted in a diplomatic dispute between Australia and Uruguay.

The Uruguayan-registered vessel made a dash for home in August when it spotted an Australian customs vessel, sparking a three-week, 6 000-kilometre chase through iceberg-strewn waters.

After the longest hot pursuit in Australian maritime history, the Viarsa was eventually boarded on August 27 by customs officials backed by armed South African police.

Uruguay questioned the legality of the boarding and protested over the detention of a government scientific observer aboard the vessel. The observer was later released after pledging to travel to Australia to assist an investigation into the alleged illegal fishing.

Australia claims 85 tones of toothfish was found in the trawler’s hold, with a value of about 1,5-million Australian dollars (US$1- million).

Senior members of the 40-man crew of Uruguayan, Spanish and Chilean nationals each face fines of 550 000 Australian dollars as well as forfeiture of the catch and the vessel.

They could also be jailed for failing to obey an Australian fisheries officer.

The Patagonian Toothfish lives mainly in Antarctic waters, reaching two metres in length. Overfishing has made it increasingly rare because it does not breed until it is at least 10 years old.

Poachers are estimated to take four times more toothfish that are caught under official quotas and Australia has warned the fish would become commercially extinct if the pirates are not stopped.

The toothfish’s popularity has soared in the United States and Japan over the past five years since marketers began selling it under the name Chilean sea bass.
- AFP

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