Cape Town. 121013. The Asset Forfeiture Unit AFU obtained a High Court order this week allowing to attach the vessel Naham 4 after it is suspected it of being stolen and of illegally fishing in South Africa's exclusive zone. Picture Leon lestrade

Cape Town - It is known by the name Naham No 4 and flies the Omani flag.

Authorities, however, suspect something is awry. And now, after the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) secured an 11th-hour Western Cape High Court application this week to attach the vessel, it will not be allowed to leave Table Bay Harbour station 153.

Suspicions are that the vessel is stolen, and has been fishing illegally in South Africa’s exclusive economic zone.

Owned by Muscat-based Al-Naham, the vessel has been investigated by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Last month a charge sheet formulated by the Western Cape Directorate of Public Prosecutions was sent to attorneys representing Al-Naham and its agent, Trade Ocean Shipping Service.

It cites Al-Naham and its representatives, Wu Hai Tao and Wu Hai Ping, as accused, and lists seven charges related to alleged contraventions of the Marine Living Resources Act and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission regulations. These include:

* Entering the South African exclusive economic zone without a permit.

* Failure to produce a fishing logbook on demand.

* Failure to have original licences and permits on board.

* Failure to produce up-to-date descriptions of the layout of the vessel.

* Failure to produce a certificate from the flag state describing the nature of modifications.

* Furnishing false or misleading particulars.

In an affidavit before the court, marine conservation inspector Buyekezwa Polo said Al-Naham’s agent applied to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in January for a permit to allow it to enter the exclusive economic zone to undergo repairs and discharge about 50 000kg of fish at Table Bay Harbour.

It had been fishing for 38 days in the West Indian Ocean, between 20 degrees and 70 degrees east.

A permit was issued on January 8, valid until February 9.

However, Polo said that at the end of January the agent applied for an amendment, stating there was more fish on board than had been declared in the initial application.

The amendment application also indicated that the vessel was already in the exclusive economic zone.

According to Polo, there was no tangible reason to refuse the request and an amended permit was granted.

From the amended application, she determined that the vessel had 126 400kg of fish on board, being its declared catch for 60 days of fishing.

This prompted the department to request the vessel maintaining system data to determine precisely where the vessel had been fishing.

However, in March, while the investigation was still pending, Al-Naham’s agent submitted yet another permit application in which it indicated that more than 44 000kg of targeted fish had been trans-shipped at sea on February 28 to the vessel Harima 2.

Polo said she became even more suspicious because it appeared the vessel had left the exclusive economic zone to offload fish on to a reefer vessel on the high seas, rather than allowing an inspection of the catch by South African authorities and waiting for the investigation to run its course.

However, she again added that the department was not in a position to refuse a permit because it did not have sufficient evidence.

Polo said she eventually identified “anomalies” in contravention of Indian Ocean Tuna Commission regulations.

In addition, various sets of photographs of the vessel, taken on different occasions, suggested the vessel was not what it purported to be.

She suspected the vessel was stolen property, and was not authorised to enter or fish in the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission area.

An estimated 148 tons of fish aboard the vessel, valued at R5.6 million, was therefore the proceeds of unlawful activity.

Judge André Blignault granted the AFU a preservation order, which will remain in force until a forfeiture application is made.

Weekend Argus