Uruguay plans to equip Uruguayan flagged fishing vessels with hermetic black boxes which should enable authorities in Montevideo to have the precise location of these vessels plus eliminating any possible manipulation of signals.
Authorities are also thinking of providing Fisheries Department observers with GPS as a further guarantee that fishing vessels transmit their correct course avoiding simulation of different positions.
These were some of the conclusions from the long hearing in the Uruguayan Lower House on Tuesday regarding the incident of the Uruguayan flagged longliner "Viarsa 1" allegedly involved in poaching toothfish and currently being escorted under arrest to Australia to face illegal fishing charges.
Ministers of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries; Defence; Work and Social Security, Foreign Affairs high officials, the Commander of the Coast Guard and the Director of the Fisheries Department plus advisors were present at the several hours long questioning by Deputies.
However in spite of having admitted that the "Viarsa 1" committed several irregularities regarding Uruguayan legislation such as falsely reporting its exact position, all government officials defended the current fisheries policy including the flagging option for foreign-owned vessels.
Deputy Defence Secretary Elias Bluth admitted that "Defence officials never imagined that Uruguayan flagged vessels could commit such gross acts, which can be defined as "maritime delinquency"".
Mr. Bluth added that software to alter satellite tracking instruments is relatively easy to purchase and therefore the possibility of "falsely reporting a vessel's location".
Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Minister Martín Aguirrezabala rejected claims from opposition parliamentarians who argued that the Fisheries Department is not effectively monitoring maritime resources and actually allowing over-fishing.
Mr. Aguirrezabala responded that "no pirate vessels are operating in Uruguayan waters" and stressed that "it's not acceptable" to describe the "Viarsa 1" as a "pirate" vessel since the Uruguayan inquiry did not find evidence to that effect.
"The owner company has committed several irregularities and others in which responsibility has to be established", said Mr. Aguirrezabala, but insisted that "Uruguay has complied with international law and has been helpful with Australian authorities regarding the investigation".
Mr. Aguirrezabala added that whenever fishing irregularities have been discovered, Uruguay has acted unilaterally according to the legal system, "without the need of other countries intervening to impose sanctions".
"Viarsa 1" escorted by an Australian fisheries patrol is expected to arrive in Freemantle this Friday according to Australian Customs Minister Chris Ellison. The "Viarsa 1" has a crew of four Uruguayans including the captain, 16 Chileans, 13 Spaniards, 3 Portuguese, 3 Peruvians and one Romanian.
Although no charges have been announced yet under Australian law the captain and officers of a poaching vessel are exposed to fines of up to 370,000 dollars each and even jail sentences. Australian Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald revealed that the captain's books indicate the "Viarsa 1" caught 85 tons of toothfish valued in over a million US dollars.
"Viarsa 1" was sighted fishing in Australian waters August 7 and refused to be inspected, which forced a three weeks pursuit until she was finally boarded and arrested by Australian, South African and Falklands fisheries patrol vessels. During most of that time there was virtually no contact since "the communications system collapses", according to the "Viarsa 1" captain.
The high seas pursuit and arrest of the "Viarsa 1" originated a diplomatic rift between Uruguay and Australia particularly since the longliner after establishing communications considered itself "arrested by Uruguayan authorities" and was heading for Montevideo.
Besides, the Uruguayan government argued that the Fisheries observer on board was a Uruguayan government employee and not a member of the crew or on the payroll of the company. The observer was later released in the nearest port, actually in South Africa.