Antarctic toothfish poachers flying false flags

WANTED SHIP: The Yongding operates alongside the Kunlun.
NZDF

WANTED SHIP: The Yongding operates alongside the Kunlun.

Three fishing boats snared poaching toothfish in the Southern Ocean were flying false flags, the Government says.

The poachers aboard the the Songhua, Kunlun and Yongding were claiming to be registered in Equatorial Guinea after being snared by the navy in the Southern Ocean.

However, after talks with his counterpart Agapito Mba Mokuy in Malabo, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the rusty fishing boats were not flagged to the central African country.

"He assured me that we have Equatorial Guinea's full co-operation in terms of investigating this matter and confirmed that the illegal vessels were not flagged to Equatorial Guinea," he said.

Officials are also in discussion with Panamanian authorities after McCully named Stanley Management, thought to be a shelf company, and Panama-based law firm Sucre, Arias & Reyes as a front for two of the boats.

He has maintained a notorious Spanish syndicate is behind the poaching ring and has previously sent the boats to the icy waters.

"Efforts to obscure the true ownership of illegal fishing vessels are common," he said.

"We are also working closely with Spanish authorities as two of the vessels have previously been linked to Vidal Armadores.

"Following an investigation by New Zealand in 2008, the Spanish Government fined Vidal Armadores for illegal fishing, carried out by one of the same vessels intercepted by this latest patrol. Everything we have seen points to Vidal Armadores continuing to control and manage this illegal activity in the Southern Ocean."

McCully admits shutting down illegal fishing is "not straight forward" and New Zealand needs the co-operation of members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an international body which manages the pristine marine environment.

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An Interpol alert went out earlier this week to make it difficult for the crew to unload their catch.

OPERATION IN AUSTRALIAN WATERS

New Zealand's naval operation to board three pirate fishing boats took place in Australian polar waters and not New Zealand's Ross Sea, the Interpol documents reveal.

They also show that the newest of the boats had already been arrested in Auckland harbour some years ago but set free with a warning. 

At the time its computers were cloned and intelligence gathered on pirate fishing.

And an expert in international ship tracking said the effort to track the pirates was probably being done through high-level electronic eavesdropping.

Off-shore patrol ship HMNZS Wellington tried two days ago to board the three ships as they illegally fished for toothfish in the Southern Ocean.

The navy has not said where this happened but it is revealed in public versions of Interpol "Purple Notices" published today.

WARNING SHOTS 'NOT APPROPRIATE'

The Wellington is returning to port to refuel with Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee saying its mission was successful. The Wellington may yet return to the Southern Ocean.

"They've gone down to that very vast Southern Ocean and they have located three of these illegal fishers, they've got evidence about where they are coming from, and the track will now be on those ships where they head to port," he said.

"They'll have quite some difficulty discharging their cargo."

Captain Tony Millar said firing warning shots was "not appropriate."

"Weather conditions were at the limits of sea-boat operations," he said.

"Given the environmental conditions the vessels were directed to alter course and speed to permit boarding to occur but refused or ignored the request. As sufficient evidence had already been captured there was little to be gained by conducting a boarding."

He said as an offshore patrol vessel Wellington was suitable for the mission, and was " designed and built to operate in a range of environments including the deep Southern Ocean."

Environmental direct action group Sea Shepherd has criticised the Australian government for "leaving the New Zealand government stranded".

"Last year, the Australian government failed to deliver on their promise to send a customs vessel to the Antarctic to monitor the whaling fleet," said Captain of the Bob Barker, Peter Hammarstedt.

"This year, the Australian government budgeted for two, 40-day Southern Ocean patrols. Still, New Zealand was left to single-handedly tackle the poachers - one vessel up against three," he said.

He said Sea Shepherd planned to pick up the chase.

INTERPOL PURPLE NOTICES

The three ships vessels were are now being monitored by GPS, Brownlee said this week.

Interpol's Purple Notices are not arrest warrants but requests to all countries to provide information to Interpol on the fishing boats Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua.

Each notice gives a "place of offence", referring to an area designated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

In each case the place of offence is an area known as Enderby-Wilkes, well inside waters and parts of Antarctica claimed by Australia.

Interpol's Purple Notice states that all three ships "were sighted by an Australian Government aerial surveillance aircraft".

In fishing terms, Songhua at 10 years old is almost a new ship.

Interpol says it has previously been named Yunnan, Nihewan, Huiquan, Wutaishan Anhui 44, Yangzi Hua 44, Trosky and Paloma V.

Ithas also flown ensigns from Tanzania, Mongolia, Cambodia, Namibia and Uruguay.

It is owned by Eastern Holdings Ltd, "a shelf company based out of Belize with information contained under its listing revealing nothing about the true beneficial owners of the vessel", Interpol says.

When it was called Paloma V, the ship turned up in Auckland in May 2008 carrying 98 tonnes of toothfish, 83 tonnes of nurse shark and 50,000 litres of fish liver oil.

READ MORE: Pirate fishing boats have long been on NZ radar

 - Stuff

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