Poachers pursued over 7000 kilometers

On August 28 2003 Australian Customs and Fisheries officers from the Australian customs and fisheries patrol boat, Southern Supporter, backed by armed South African enforcement officers boarded the Uruguayan flagged fishing vessel Viarsa 1. The boarding and apprehension ended a record breaking 21-day hot pursuit covering 3900 nautical miles by Southern Supporter and on-the-water support from South Africa and the UK – two nations also concerned about illegal fishing.

On 7 August 2003 Southern Supporter sighted Viarsa 1 allegedly engaged in illegal fishing inside the Australian exclusive economic zone around Heard Island and the McDonald Islands in the Southern Ocean. The pursuit which followed was unprecedented in both distance and level of international cooperation to protect the marine ecosystem and Australia’s sovereignty in its waters.

When Viarsa 1 was first sighted, it had concealed its identity markings. Australian fisheries officers ordered the vesselto accompany Southern Supporter eastward to Fremantle to investigate its activities under Australian fisheries law. When the master of Viarsa 1 ignored the order and started on a westward course, the hot pursuit commenced.

From the time of sighting, diplomatic action also took place behind the scenes as part of the international effort to stop the vessel. Uruguayan officials willingly cooperated, and provided the vessel monitoring data used to verify where the vessel was geographically located. The vessel monitoring data reported that the Viarsa 1 was 3000nm west of its actual position, which indicated that the vessel was misreporting its location to the Uruguayan Government. Australia alerted Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and key port States about the hot pursuit and the need to ensure that the catch not be off-loaded and traded.

Sixteen days into the hot pursuit, any doubts about the identity of the Viarsa 1 were answered when crew members repainted the vessel’s name, number and port of registration on the hull. The master of Viarsa 1 advised Australian fisheries officers on board Southern Supporter that they had been arrested by the Uruguayan Government and were returning to Montevideo.

At times during the pursuit the vessels headed into Antarctic waters risking their safety amongst the sea ice. At one crucial stage the master of the Southern Supporter had to guide the battered fishing vessel out of danger.

Australia sought and obtained the assurances of other concerned CCAMLR Members that Viarsa 1 would not be allowed to unload its catch or to refuel in their ports. The Governments of South Africa and the United Kingdom also offered on-the-water support to Australia. As a result the South African icebreaker SA Agulhas, the South African ocean-going salvage tug John Ross and the United Kingdom fisheries patrol vessel Dorada, joined the chase in a multi-national enforcement effort .

By 28 August the vessels were south west of South Africa. The John Ross launched a boarding party using two small Australian pursuit boats, with Australian fisheries and customs officers and armed South African enforcement officers on board.

Following the apprehension,Australia sought further support from South Africa by re-provisioning both the Viarsa 1 and the Southern Supporter off the coast of South Africa, before returning to Fremantle.

Australia and Uruguay continue to cooperate while gathering evidence. Officials from both countries have worked together to collect evidence collected from the Viarsa 1 and from Uruguayan fisheries records.

Charges were laid against the master and four crew members on 10 October 2003 under Australia’s Fisheries Management Act 1991.

The extraordinary pursuit and successful apprehension of this illegal fishing vessel was only possible due to the cooperation from other nations concerned about illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic and International Policy Section, AAD