A Uruguayan-registered longliner caught allegedly fishing illegally in Australia's Antarctic waters last week was escorted into harbour at Fremantle, Western Australia on Sunday 1 February by Customs officials and the Australian Navy.
The Maya V was allegedly carrying 150 tonnes of Patagonian toothfish, worth more than AUD 2 million (USD 1.5 million), the largest catch of the increasingly rare and valuable toothfish to have entered an Australian port.
The MAYA V was apprehended in late January on suspicion of illegal fishing in Australia's exclusive economic zone around the remote Heard and McDonald islands, over 4000 kilometres south-west of Perth.
A naval boarding party from the frigate HMAS Warramunga rappelled down ropes from a Seahawk helicopter to seize the suspected poachers after abandoning earlier attempts to board because of worsening weather.
Four Australian sailors were thrown into the treacherous seas as they first tried to board the boat during winds of minus 13 degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit).
Federal Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald said in Fremantle that no charges had yet been laid against the Uruguayan captain or any of his 40 crew members from Chile, Spain and Portugal. But charges are likely to be laid against some crew members soon, and others would be expatriated fairly quickly.
"Our preliminary investigations indicate there is Patagonian toothfish on board and preliminary estimates are that there are 150 tonnes valued at approximately USD 1,5 million, which demonstrates why people would be prepared to go into these sort of seas fishing," Macdonald said.
"Officers are conducting investigations as we speak and they will be interviewing various members of the crew. If there are offences discovered, charges will be laid."
He said those charged, who would be brought before the Australian court system, faced fines of AUD 50,000 as well as forfeiture of the ship and the catch.
Another Uruguayan fishing vessel, the Viarsa which was escorted into Fremantle last October after being captured in the South Atlantic Ocean following a historic 21-day pursuit, had 90 tonnes aboard.
Macdonald said investigations suggested one or two members on board the Maya V had previously been on board other vessels intercepted by Australian authorities.
He praised the efforts of the fisheries, navy and customs personnel involved in the operation in which Australian sailors on board used Special Forces tactics to capture the Maya in treacherous conditions. (FIS/MP)