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Australian, S. African Officials Arrest Fish Poachers After 3-Week Chase Across Antarctic - 2003-08-28

A bizarre Antarctic chase has ended in the southern Atlantic Ocean. South African and Australian officials have arrested the crew of a ship loaded with 85 tons of illegally caught fish, worth an estimated $2 million. The fish, the rare Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, is popular in restaurants in the United States and Japan, but environmentalists say poaching has pushed the species to the brink of extinction. For three weeks in icy Antarctic waters, an Australian fisheries patrol boat called the Southern Supporter chased the Uruguayan-flagged fishing trawler Viarsa 1, suspected of illegally catching the rare Patagonian toothfish in Australian waters.

The fishing boat ignored several orders to stop for a search. The captain tried to shake the pursuers by heading into dangerous pack ice near Antarctica, but the Southern Supporter followed, even though neither vessel has a reinforced hull.

In the end, the Southern Supporter caught up with the Viarsa 1 only with the help of three other ships from two other countries. South Africa sent the armored ship Agulhas, which is designed for working in the ice-filled southern ocean, as well as the super-fast tugboat John Ross. A British fisheries patrol boat, the Dorada, headed east from the Falkland Islands on an intercept course.

Working together in dangerous weather, they surrounded the Viarsa. Late Wednesday, armed South African and Australian officials boarded the fishing trawler and arrested the 40 crew members, who surrendered peacefully after the three-week ordeal. The captain's log said there were 85 tons of Patagonian toothfish in the holds.

Under armed escort, the Viarsa 1 is now heading back toward Cape Town, where it will refuel and re-supply before setting sail for Australia. The crew members, who are mainly from Uruguay, Chile and Spain, could face a year in jail and fines of more than $350,000 each if they are convicted in an Australian court.

Restaurants in the United States serve the Patagonian toothfish as an expensive delicacy commonly called Chilean sea bass. The fish is also popular in Japan. American fish markets sell it for around $26 a kilo, making the Viarsa's haul worth more than $2 million.

"It's impressive. It can get up to almost two meters in length," South African marine anti-poaching official Marcel Kroese describes the toothfish, which fishermen call white gold because of its appearance and premium price. "It's got a mouthful of teeth that's fairly impressive as well, that's why it's called a toothfish. But most of the really big fish have been caught out, and the sizes are dramatically smaller at the moment."

Mr. Kroese says large-scale illegal, unregulated and unreported catches of toothfish are seriously hurting the species' chances of survival, because the big females produce many more eggs than smaller, younger fish.

"You need the big fish to produce large volumes of small fry to be able to survive," he said. "If you've got lots of small fish just producing eggs, you don't get that large influx of recruits into the population."

Environmentalists believe the Patagonian toothfish is nearing commercial extinction. Several activist groups have been trying for years to have the fish put on the official internationally accepted list of endangered species, but so far without success.

In an effort to stem the decline in toothfish stocks, most countries are severely restricting the amount of the fish that licensed fishermen are legally allowed to catch.

For example, if the 85 tons aboard the Viarsa had been caught legally in South African waters, it would have accounted for more than one-sixth of the country's entire allowable catch for the year.

But the poaching continues unabated because the Antarctic fisheries are so hard to police. Environmentalist groups believe as much as 90 percent of the Patagonian toothfish sold on the international market is caught illegally.

The three-week chase after the Viarsa 1 was the longest marine pursuit in Australian history and is believed to have cost millions of Australian taxpayer dollars, not to mention the expense that Britain and South Africa bore in joining the pursuit.

But marine officials are praising the international cooperation, not complaining about the cost. That is a sign of how seriously they take the toothfish-poaching problem.