Irish mouse roars in battle of bluefin tuna

Ireland's tiny navy takes on armada of huge Japanese trawlers using factory methods to plunder Atlantic waters of favourite fish

Armed Irish naval patrols and tracker aircraft were last night poised to intercept Japanese vessels encroaching on the European Union's Atlantic waters after two large ships were detained for illegal tuna fishing.

The Irish are maintaining a strong presence at the edge of their 200- mile fishing limit, believing the estimated 40-strong Japanese fleet may attempt to retrieve miles of valuable lines and high-tech radio buoys, along with a substantial haul of prized bluefin tuna.

The incursion into EU waters by part of a 40-strong Japanese fleet off the west of Ireland led to the skipper of one vessel yesterday being charged with illegal fishing at Bandon, County Cork. His ship, the Minato Maru, with its crew of 22, was escorted into the Cork port of Castletownbere. The vessel has been ordered to remain in Irish waters pending trial on a date still to be set.

A second, the Shoshin Maru, was brought there last night under the supervision of Irish naval officers who boarded it on Thursday. If convicted, the ships' captains face maximum fines of IRpounds 200.000 (pounds 208,000).

Tragedy struck the Japanese fleet last night when five crew members on board another vessel, the Tasei Maru, died after gas from a refrigeration unit leaked into the ship's engine room. The five dead were all Japanese nationals and included the fishing master, chief engineer and boatswain. It is expected that the ship will be brought to Cork harbour while safety tests are carried out.

The exact size of the fleet is uncertain, as the Irish tracker plane is monitoring the edge of the fishing limit rather than waters further west where the bulk of the fleet is operating.

The Japanese vessels, each with an average size of 500 ton-nes, are thought to have moved northwards from off west Africa and west of Biscay in pursuit of the tuna as it migrates towards warm-water feeding grounds.

Fisheries experts say this week's visiting fleet is the big- gest seen this close to the coast in years. The Japanese use the "passive" long- line method rather than the controversial "active" gill-nets which sparked US bans and enviromental pro-tests because of the fatal snaring of dolphins and porpoises. In the past four years, EU fleets have been limited to using nets of a maximum 2.5 km in length.

The long-line method allows the bluefin tuna to be caught with the minimum of bruising, thereby retaining its high market value. The technique is capital-intensive and highly skil- led, as each line, linked to radio buoys, may carry 1,750 hooks over a 70-mile line, baited with squid.

The chances of successful prosecution depends on obtaining evidence that would connect the marker buoy and its lines to individual ships. Unlike nets, they are not fixed physically to the ship. The link with the Minato Maru, detained 180 miles off Galway on Tuesday, emerged after a 15-hour search of the ship when its master admitted the offence.

"Unless we catch them in the act, all we can do is go on board and try and find some kind of reference to the buoy," said Irish Defence Forces spokes- man Captain Eoin O Neachtain.

According to Frank Doyle, general secretary of the Irish Fishermens' Organisation, EU restrictions on gill-nets have undermined the viability of Ire- land's tuna fishing fleet, which has only seven boats now operating, compared with 20 three years ago, when annual catches were worth Irpounds 3m (pounds 3.04m).

The high costs of long-line fishing has meant that the Irish have mainly fished the albacore tuna, which was at the centre of recent conflict with Spanish, French and English boats.

National passion for perfect seafood keeps prices at a premium

The reason why Japanese fleets criss-cross the world in search of tuna lies in the national veneration of fresh seafood in pristine condition.

The prime market is in fish caught undamaged and unscratched, bled to prevent blood discolouring its meat, and then gutted before being rushed to the kitchen as fresh as possible. But the Japanese lust for tuna is such that there is still a huge market for the frozen variety. Most of the catch would be frozen and taken back by sea (prices pounds 11-pounds 20 a kilo), but prime specimens may be flown home immediately.

The very best fresh fish are graded in the world's largest seafood market in Tokyo by testers who determine quality by excising a morsel of the meat and rubbing it gently between their fingers. Top fish fetch pounds 2,000 or more.

Prime specimens are served raw as sashimi, and a customer enjoying a large snack - with saki - at a high-class sushi bar will pay up to pounds 120 for the privilege.

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