By Andrea Vance
The New Zealand navy has caught a third boat fishing illegally - signalling a notorious Spanish syndicate is poaching toothfish in Antarctic waters.
HMNZS Wellington found the vessel - flagged to Equatorial Guinea - fishing for the valuable delicacy to the west of the icy Ross Sea.
In the past week, they have intercepted two other boats - also registered to the Central African country, using gillnets, which are banned in the heavily regulated fishery. The Government says all three vessels are repeat offenders, linked to Vidal Armadores S.A, a Spanish piracy ring.
Foreign minister Murray McCully has requested permission to board the boats from Equatorial Guinea. In the meantime, the navy can do little but capture video footage of the illegal catch as they are not allowed to detain the boats.
The Government has also asked Interpol to put alerts on the vessels Kunlun, Songhua and Yongding to prevent their catch being unloaded.
"All three vessels claim to be flagged to Equatorial Guinea and we continue to convey to Equatorial Guinea our concerns about these vessels' operations and request permission to board the vessels," McCully said today.
"While these three vessels claim not to be in anyway linked, the Yongding has been observed operating alongside both the Kunlun and the Songhua. This strongly suggests they are part the same illegal fishing syndicate. In the past, two of these vessels have been linked to the Spanish-based syndicate, Vidal Armadores S.A."
McCully has vowed to throw the book at the owners. But his hands are tied as the isolated waters are regulated by the Commission for the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an international organisation.
Direct action conservation group Sea Shepherd has also been pursuing poachers in the Southern Ocean. Captain Peter Hammarstedt of the Bob Barker called on New Zealand authorities to seize the vessels and arrest the crew.
He says the Songhua and the Kunlun are better known as Nihewan and Chang Ba. The Songhua was also renamed Paloma V and in 2008 was blacklisted by CCAMLR. A year later Sea Shepherd confiscated a gillnet set by the vessel in Antarctic waters.
"These ships have been operating in the Antarctic for over 10 years. If these vessels are not arrested, then they will continue poaching this year and for many years to follow, making the interception all for not," he said.
"Clearly, the Paloma V, now operating as the Songhua, has graduated from fencing stolen fish to grand theft of marine wildlife. These criminals have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no respect for the law, and are blatantly flaunting their illegal activity in the face of New Zealand authorities. It's time to bust-up this crime ring, lock-up these vessels and throw away the key for good."
Industry body Seafood New Zealand chief executive Tim Pankhurst agreed the boats were "serial offenders". They need to be "hounded out of a valuable, strictly regulated fishery".
"While these are not New Zealand waters, we are party to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which regulates toothfishing in the Southern Ocean, " he said.
"While they are flagged to Equatorial Guinea that is a likely front and the owners need to be identified and brought to account. It is vital to keep tracking them, seize their catch and drive them out of business"
Fishing was regulated in the area after stocks were plundered in the 1990s. The delicacy can fetch up to $70 a kg, selling in top end restaurants.