A New Zealand navy ship busted two boats illegally fishing for valuable toothfish in the Southern Ocean over the weekend.
The HMNZS Wellington intercepted the poachers, claiming to be flagged to Equatorial Guinea but previously linked to Spain, while patrolling the isolated waters.
Fishing in the area is banned by an international convention to conserve Antarctic marine life.
The first boat was sighted last Tuesday and the navy stayed in the area to snare the second.
Wellington’s crew took photographs and video footage of illegal fishing, which will be presented in any legal action. But the navy can’t detain the boats, and they may re-flag or change their names to mask their identity.
In a series of pictures, fisherman can be seen hauling toothfish – know to poachers as ‘white gold’ – aboard the rusty and battered Kunlun and Songhua vessels.
Foreign Minister Murray McCully has now asked the government in Equatorial Guinea for permission for officials to board the vessels, if the flag status is verified.
“The vessels are well-known, repeat offenders and their ownership has in the past been linked to Spanish interests. We have alerted the Spanish Government to what we have discovered,” he said.
And the Government has asked Interpol to issue a “purple notice” for each vessel, which means around 190 countries will be on alert.
“We are also working with ports to ensure these vessels cannot offload their illegal catch or profit from their criminal activity,” McCully said.
He added: “New Zealand is committed to doing its part to protect the Southern Ocean and we will continue to work with international partners to take every possible action to deter illegal fishing and prosecute those responsible.”
Antarctic toothfish – is prized by top-end restaurants. They can grow up to 100kg and fetch around US$50 ($64) a kilo.
The remote and over-fished seas are regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Direct-action conservation group Sea Shepherd also pursues and confronts illegal fishing vessels in the icy waters.
Captain Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker commended the navy on the interception, welcoming “this historic leap forward in the fight against toothfish poaching”.