Tony Carnie

DURBAN: Three Chinese fishing vessels, loaded with squid and other fish, have been arrested after a dramatic sea chase off the coast of East London.

The vessels were arrested after a combined operation involving the SANDF, Department of Fisheries and SA Maritime Safety Authority.

There were unofficial reports that SA Air Force fighter planes and helicopters also took part, but this could not be confirmed last night.

The government authorities said three Chinese vessels arrived in East London on Sunday evening after trying to evade Navy and fisheries vessels. None of the vessels had permission to enter South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Subsequent searches showed that the vessel Fu Yuan Yu 7880 had 340 tons of squid, with 36 crew. The Fu Yang Yu 7881 had about 60 tons of squid, with 34 crew and the Run Da 617 had about 200 tons of squid and other species of fish, with 26 crew.

The statement said the SAS Drakensberg naval supply vessel and the fisheries inspection vessel Sarah Baartman escorted the vessels into East London harbour.

The drama started on Friday night, just off Port Elizabeth, when the joint patrol spotted two foreign fishing vessels. “We verified that they had not applied to enter into our EEZ and that created suspicion. The seas were rough which made it impossible to board the vessels.”

The vessels were instructed via radio to sail to East London Port but did not comply and the two South African vessels increased speed, later managing to intercept them.

“The vessels stopped and switched off their engines. At about 2am on Sunday the foreign fishing vessels started their engines and within no time and without communicating, they started steaming towards the east.

“They were followed through the early hours of the morning and intercepted again, and fortunately this time the weather had improved and the fisheries inspectors and the SA Navy officials boarded the vessels. When fish and fishing gear was found they were ordered to sail to East London.”

En route, another foreign fishing vessel was spotted. “The inspectors launched to go and conduct an inspection. This vessel did not have any permit and was also instructed to go to East London.”

The Fisheries Department said it was considering several charges, including illegal possession of fishing gear, failing to comply with instructions from fisheries officers and possible infringements of international conservation and management measures.

Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana said: “The capturing of these vessels indicates our seriousness as a country to protect our territorial and exclusive economic zone. We cannot tolerate the plundering of our marine resources, which are a source of food security and play a huge role in realising our goals in Operation Phakisa. We are also looking into the sudden influx of these vessels in our waters.”

Two weeks ago, the presence of at least nine Chinese fishing vessels off the KZN and Eastern Cape coastline raised concern.

Last week, another Chinese vessel was arrested and escorted to Cape Town after a larger group of Chinese vessels fled.