Australia faces a damages claim that could exceed ten million US dollars after five fishermen from the Uruguayan flagged longliner Viarsa 1 were acquitted of charges over an alleged poaching of one million US dollars of Patagonian toothfish.
According to the Australian press the owner of the fishing boat and the charter company are trying to recover the 2million US dollars vessel, the value of the catch and income lost while the boat has been impounded for two years.
The acquittals and Federal Court lawsuit are an embarrassing setback for the Australian government in its fight against increasing numbers of illegal poachers in Australian waters. The fishermen -- one Uruguayan, three Spaniards and a Chilean -- were captured in August 2003 after the longest chase in Australia's maritime history -- a 21-day, 7000km pursuit that crossed three oceans, cost millions of dollars and involved South African and Falkland Islands fisheries patrol vessels.
Australian press reports two of the fishermen broke down and sobbed uncontrollably when a District Court jury delivered not guilty verdicts to 12 charges in Perth late Friday night -- tears shared by the jury.
A single conviction would have ended the Australian Federal Court action launched by the two companies and justified the forfeiture notice issued by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.
Defence lawyers Mark Trowell QC said authorities had not seen the men fishing in the Australian zone and the case had been based on circumstantial evidence. He says the men have faced a trial and a retrial on the charges, and are very relieved to be returning home to their families.
"They've been stuck in Western Australia for two years now" added Mr Trowell. "They haven't been able to return to their family or friends or able to work".
"It's been very difficult for them and they're quite emotional now at the prospect of returning home."
Federal Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald remarked the verdict was amazing and he would take advice on a possible appeal.
"I would repeat the exercise tomorrow if a foreign fishing vessel is sighted by an Australian patrol vessel inside the Australian fishing zone without a permit" insisted Senator Macdonald.