Seized Chinese trawler escorted to Cape Town in illegal fishing rumpus

14 May 2016 - 19:19 By Jerome Cornelius And Mike Loewe

A seized Chinese fishing trawler was escorted into Cape Town harbour by a coastal protection vessel on Saturday and was expected to be searched for evidence of illegal fishing.

It is one of nine vessels suspected by the Department of Agriculture‚ Forestry and Fisheries of fishing illegally in South African waters.

"They were spotted around Durban‚ Port Saint John's and Cape Recife‚" said a Daff spokesman. "Their activity seemed suspicious and we dispatched Victoria Mxenge‚ our patrol vessel‚ to search for them."

Fisheries minister Senzeni Zokwana told a news conference at Cape Town harbour on Saturday that the other eight ships had sailed just outside South Africa's exclusive economic zone. The Navy was monitoring them.

The ministry was committed to "protecting and defending our ocean space"‚ said Zokwana‚ and the seized vessel was not "granted a right of innocent passage".

The vessels were detected on Thursday and agreed to be escorted to Saldanha Bay‚ on the Cape west coast‚ for inspection‚ according to a Daff statement.

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"However‚ during the night these vessels started dispersing in different directions. This made it harder for our vessel to give chase. Our vessel kept trail of one of the vessels and captured and boarded it‚ escorting it to the port of Cape Town."

Daff said defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula had instructed the navy to help with the chase and Western Cape police were also assisting.

"The Western Cape Joint Operations Command Centre has been activated to bring all the law enforcement stakeholders to deal with this situation and have already put in place an operational plan to inspect the vessel.

"We urge all South Africans to notify the department should they spot suspicious vessels at sea. Please contact the department’s vessel monitoring operations room on 021 402 3077/ 3076.”

The fleet of Chinese trawlers off the Wild Coast is suspected to be at least 28 strong.

Anglers with smartphones and ship-tracking apps have become the mouth of public outrage over the arrival of the Lu Huang Yuan Yu fleet.

A Facebook post on Salt Fishing SA by Mark Hicks‚ which first blew the whistle on the Chinese vessels switching off their AIM monitoring beacons at night while off the Wild Coast‚ has been shared thousands opf times.

Navy spokesman Captain Zamo Sithole said on Friday: “The South African Navy has recently conducted operations in the Port Shepstone to Mazeppa Bay area‚ specifically to address illegal activities in this area. The South African Navy condemns any violation of the South African law at sea.”

However‚ he cautioned: “The South African Navy does not have a jurisdiction over illegal fishing within the exclusive economic zone. This is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture‚ Forestry and Fisheries. The South African National Defence Force is‚ however‚ always ready to provide support to (the department)‚ if so requested.”

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Daff spokeswoman Palesa Mokomela said earlier in the week that the department's inshore protection vessel‚ the Ruth First‚ had checked nine vessels and found them to be “brand-new and en route from China to Congo”.

“Our inspectors inspected them and found no fish or fishing material.”

But recreational anglers were not buying it. John Rance‚ environmental officer for the Border Deepsea Angling Association said: “No-one is naively believing that.”

He said further investigations were being conducted and he commended Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency for getting involved behind the scenes.

On Thursday at 10pm‚ Wild Coast resident Barry Sahd said he watched an alleged Chinese trawler slowly make its way towards Durban with its main floodlight illuminating the water behind the ship.

“I was watching it through binoculars. It was a clear night and it was only 3km offshore‚” he said.

Kevin Cole‚ principal scientist at the East London Museum‚ warned that there was a rising global demand for fish.

“This is driving the process reported in our coastal waters.”

While recreational anglers accused the Chinese trawlers of plundering the sardine run‚ Cole said illegal long-line commercial boats would be targeting larger fish that gathered to feed off the sardines. These included yellow-fin tuna and broad-billed swordfish.

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“This will have socioeconomic impacts on the local South African fishery industry as well as the ecology of the oceanic ecosystem‚” said Cole.

“The by-catch from the long-lines is of great concern as larger predators such as sharks are removed from the system.”

He said if illegal fishing were on the go it would also affect species studies of fish and populations‚ as no statistics would be verifiable to make recommendations on sustainability for the local commercial fishing industry.

“In 2009 it was reported by the Institute for Security Studies that illegal fishing in South African waters was costing the country about R6-billiion a year‚ mostly related to the deep-sea trawl of the hake fishing industry.

“Questions were raised eight years ago by SADC (Southern African Development Community) ministers of fisheries‚ that surveillance and monitoring in African waters should be improved.”

While there were bilateral agreements on international fishing off the coast‚ Cole asked: “Are the vessels reported legal‚ and why are they switching their transponders off?”

TMG Digital/Sunday Times/Daily Dispatch

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