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Swashbuckling Customs Officials Land a Big Catch: Pirate Vessel Nabbed in High Seas Chase , WWF Says

SYDNEY, Australia - Dodging icebergs and bucking 30-foot seas, a flotilla of Australian-led vessels has captured a pirate fishing ship and its cargo of suspected illegal catch after a 21-day chase across the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

"It isn't every day that conservation gets as swashbuckling as this," noted Simon Habel, North American director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring arm of World Wildlife Fund. "Our heartfelt thanks and admiration go out to the Australian and South African customs agents and crews who refused to give up the chase in spite of fierce seas, numbing cold and considerable personal risk. This is a real victory for the health of our oceans."

The high seas drama began on Aug. 8, when an Uruguayan vessel suspected of illegally fishing for Chilean sea bass in Australian waters turned tail and fled after being spotted by fisheries authorities. It ended early Thursday, when Australians, joined during the chase by vessels from South Africa and Great Britain, finally overtook and boarded the "Viarsa I" some 2,000 miles southwest of Cape Town.

On board were 85 tons of Chilean sea bass (known in many other parts of the world as Patagonian toothfish) - a cargo valued at nearly $3 million.

"Chilean sea bass is so valuable that it's been nicknamed 'white gold.' In days of yore, doubloons may have been the pirate treasure of choice, but these days the real booty lies in illegal fishing," Habel added.

Consumer demand in the United States and Japan, the two largest markets for Chilean sea bass, is helping to drive the fish to near commercial extinction in many parts of the world. Australia, which strictly regulates the toothfish industry, has one of the few commercially viable stocks left - making its waters a favorite target for poachers.

TRAFFIC studies indicate that as much as half of the Chilean sea bass traded around the world comes from illegal or unregulated catch. Australia, Great Britain and South Africa have been at the forefront of international efforts to curb this illegal trade, but "much more needs to be done because pirate fishing continues to undermine fishery management efforts," Habel said.

Catching the Viarsa I, whose captain and 40 crew members are being taken back to western Australia to face formal charges of illegal fishing, is "a real victory for conservation, but one that is tempered by the fact that this is just one out of many vessels engaged in unregulated fishing," Habel added.

The issue will taken up at an international meeting of fisheries authorities in Hobart, Australia, in October. The US has already taken some steps to curb imports of illegally caught Chilean sea bass, but World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC, "hope the United States will also work with other nations at the Hobart meeting to secure the stronger controls that will be needed to end illegal fishing. It is important for the US, as one of the major Chilean sea bass markets, to demonstrate leadership on this issue," Habel said.