Australia Captures Russian Toothfish Poachers

CANBERRA, Australia, February 12, 2002 (ENS) - The flag of Russia has emerged as the latest to fly on alleged illegal longliners chasing riches in the Southern Ocean, following the arrest of two fishing boats by the Australian Navy.

A mission code-named Operation Sutton has pounced on the vessels Volga and Lena near Heard Island, about 2,200 nautical miles southwest of Perth, Western Australia.

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Australian Navy personnel approach the Russian longliner Lena in the Southern Ocean (Photos courtesy Australian Navy)
They were carrying about 200 metric tons of Patagonian toothfish, sold in the United States as Chilean sea bass, which the Australian government said is worth $A2.5 million ($US1.25 million).

The pirate trade in toothfish is estimated by the government to be worth $US90 million annually wholesale. Its fishers have used a range of flags of convenience, including Panama, Vanuatu and Togo.

As well as depleting the stressed toothfish resource, the illegal trade is threatening with extinction several species of seabirds that become caught on longline hooks, according to scientists advising Antarctica's fisheries organization, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

The frigate HMAS Canberra backed up by the tanker HMAS Westralia seized the two vessels within 24 hours of each other on February 7 and 8 during the mission, details of which were made public today after it ended.

The government has declined to speculate on the ownership of the vessels. Greenpeace said it believes they are part of a fleet of up to six ships owned by a Russian holding company with links to a toothfish trading company in Hong Kong.

The arrests were conducted under hazardous conditions in extreme cold and rough seas. Armed troops and fisheries officials from HMAS Canberra fast-roped onto the sterns of the Russian boats from a helicopter to take control. It is understood they met some resistance.

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Australian Navy confiscates the longliner Volga
Lena was first to be arrested, about 140 nautical miles inside the Australian Fisheries Zone around Heard Island. Australian government ministers disclosed that in December the Lena was pursued unsuccessfully by an unarmed Australian fisheries patrol vessel for two weeks. It was forced to give up the chase after running low on fuel.

But Lena remained in the area. Australian authorities believe that the vessel was operating with a mother ship able to transship the catch at sea, as well as refuel and reprovision.

Operation Sutton was prepared and departed Australia in late January. Lena, rust-streaked, but carrying sophisticated communications equipment and the name "Ana" on its stern, was seized first. It was carrying 70 metric tons of toothfish, as well as baited longlines.

The next day the similarly equipped Volga, bearing the home port of Taganrog, near the Black Sea, was arrested, and found to be carrying 127 metric tons of toothfish.

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Australian Navy personnel board the Volga from a rigid hull inflatable boat.
Navy crews were put aboard both vessels, which set courses for Fremantle, Western Australia, where they are expected to arrive later this month, according to the Fisheries Minister, Senator Ian Macdonald.

There the vessels' owners and officers may face charges for illegal fishing with maximum penalties of $A550,000, ($US250,000) as well as the forfeiture of the ships and catches.

The arrests take to six the number of toothfish longliners captured off Heard Island and brought to Australia for trial since October 1997.

Other than confirming the ships' Russian flag state, a spokesman for Senator Macdonald declined to comment on links between the vessels. Details of the crew are also being withheld ahead of their investigation in port.

The arrests underline the need for a moratorium on all toothfishing in the Southern Ocean, said Greenpeace campaigner Quentin Hanich. "A moratorium will give the space to look for long term solutions," he said.

For the past four years governments meeting at CCAMLR have been attempting to stem the rich illegal trade in toothfish. But a catch documentation scheme meant to trace the fish from hook to market appears to be failing.

CCAMLR heard at its last meeting in Hobart that the scheme may even benefit fishers, who are using it to launder their catches.

A year after it was introduced, the illegal catch was estimated to be even larger, and the massive destruction of Southern Ocean seabirds on longline hooks had increased.

Australia's protective effort is also under scrutiny. Before the October 2001, federal election there were plans to have a more permanent armed presence in the Southern Ocean, an informed government source said.

Senator Macdonald confirmed that Southern Supporter's charter ended in about a year's time. He said enforcement is always under review.

Published in cooperation with The Antarctican at: http://www.antarctican.com