Australians net poachers after 4,600-mile ocean chase

After a three-week chase in the iceberg-studded seas of the Antarctic, the game was up yesterday for a Uruguayan ship suspected of poaching rare Patagonian toothfish in Australian waters.

Australian and South African officials boarded the ship and arrested the 40 crew members.

The Viarsa prompted the longest maritime pursuit in Australian history when it was spotted apparently poaching the valuable toothfish - known as the "white gold" of the Southern Ocean - in a remote Australian fisheries zone. Australia sent a customs ship in hot pursuit and enlisted the help of the South African tug, the John Ross, and the Dorada, a British fisheries vessel based in the Falklands.

After a chase of 4,600 miles, the three vessels closed in on the Viarsa in high seas about 2,000 miles south-west of Cape Town last night. Ian Macdonald, the Australian Fisheries Minister, said: "It's a very expensive operation, but it's important to Australia. 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."

The toothfish, also known as the Chilean sea bass, is a highly prized delicacy that can fetch up to 14.50 Australian dollars (£6) a pound. It is found in the remote southern waters dominated by Australia's maritime zone, and its flaky white flesh is highly sought after in restaurants in Japan, Europe, Canada and the United States.

Mr Macdonald said that a full cargo could be worth A$5m (£2m).

The Viarsa was seen fishing near Heard and McDonald Islands, about 2,500 miles south-west of Western Australia on 7 August. An Australian ship, the Southern Supporter, gave chase, suspecting the trawler had been fishing illegally. A South African ice-breaker, carrying armed officers, joined the operation a week ago, and the Dorada was recruited this week.

The incident has provoked a diplomatic stand-off between Australia and Uruguay. Montevideo said it had tried to make the Viarsa comply with instructions to head to an appropriate port, but the Uruguayan captain and Spanish crew had cut off communications.

Australia was perturbed to learn yesterday that a Uruguayan official, said to be a scientist, was on the Viarsa. It lodged a protest with the country's ambassador in Canberra and urged Uruguay to take more responsibility for ships sailing under its flag.

It has also accused the Viarsa crew of being irresponsible by taking a route lined with icebergs. The Southern Supporter reported that at one stage it was surrounded by 70 icebergs within a 20-mile radius. Mr Macdonald had said earlier that he did not know when the Viarsa would be boarded. "It's difficult to explain just how rough and uncomfortable and dangerous these seas are," he said.

The Australian government introduced tougher fines for poaching Patagonian toothfish last year and bought a new patrol boat to counter international poaching syndicates. If caught, poachers must surrender their vessels and face fines of up to A$500,000.

The Patagonian toothfish is said to be in danger of commercial extinction because of overfishing. The National Environment Trust in Washington says nearly 80 per cent of the fish sold on the world market is obtained illegally.