The Uruguayan scientific observer aboard the longliner Viarsa 1, currently being escorted to the city of Freemantle to face charges of poaching toothfish in Australian waters arrived in Montevideo Thursday evening and spent the following morning with the Director of the Uruguayan Fisheries Department.
Last August 27 the Uruguayan flagged "Viarsa 1" was boarded in high seas by Australian and South African special forces after having been chased for three weeks in Antarctic waters by an Australian Customs patrol and later with support from South Africa and Falklands vessels.
The forty crewmembers including the captain and Mr. Eduardo Merello Schulze, were declared under arrest and in custody by Australian authorities until they face a Freemantle court for allegedly illegally catching the 85 tons of toothfish, valued in over a million US dollars that "Viarsa 1" is carrying in its hold.
The release of Mr. Merello follows strong pressure from Uruguayan authorities who claimed the scientist was a Uruguayan government employee, unrelated to the owners, captain and crew of "Viarsa 1" besides the fact he had no authority on board.
Australian authorities said Mr. Merello was released with the compromise that he will be sent back to Australia when needed to cooperate in the investigation. Under Australian law poachers are heavily fined and have the vessel involved confiscated and even sunken. Captain and crew members if proved guilty could be jailed.
Uruguayan authorities said that "intense negotiations with the Australian government regarding the rights of Uruguay and government employees in official duties, have ended" adding that the return of Mr. Merello is extremely valuable to "help determine the investigation" to establish clearly what happened onboard "Viarsa 1" and responsibilities following possible breaches of local and or international law.
Mr. Merello is expected to complete his report this week.
"Viarsa 1" is scheduled to reach Freemantle, Western Australia, on or about 4 October 2003.
Uruguay could face serious accusations next October from fellow country members of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources that is holding its annual meeting in Hobart, Tasmania. CCAMLR is the organization that decides on catch quotas and conservation policies for the endangered toothfish.