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Australian crew find suspected poachers
( 2003-08-28 09:36) (Agencies)

A three-week chase through icy seas at the bottom of the world ended early Thursday when Australian and South African authorities boarded a Uruguayan ship suspected of poaching millions of dollars worth of rare fish.

The 40 crew members aboard the trawler Viarsa were arrested in Antarctic waters about 2,300 miles southwest of Cape Town, a South African government spokeswoman told the SAPA news agency.

South African Environment Ministry spokeswoman Phindile Makwakwa told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio the Viarsa and its suspected cargo of Chilean sea bass, also known as Patagonian toothfish, will now start a seven-day trip to Cape Town.

Chilean sea bass a snow-white, flaky delicacy prized in restaurants in the United States, Japan and Europe is overfished, illegally poached and could vanish from the coasts of Antarctica.

Australia's Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald said the boarding was carried out under international law. None of those aboard resisted, although the captain protested.

"We've indicated to him that, under international law, we've lawfully boarded the ship, and we require the ship to return to Fremantle, which it is now doing," Macdonald told ABC radio.

Australian, British and South African vessels had been dodging icebergs in attempts to catch up with Viarsa since it was spotted inside Australia's Antarctic fishing zone on Aug. 7 near the remote Heard and McDonald islands.

"The Patagonian toothfish is a very rare and valuable species, and the illegal fishing in the southern ocean we believe is part of a criminal conspiracy," Macdonald said.

Nearly 80 percent of the Chilean sea bass sold on the world market is illegally obtained, according to the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

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