The Chinese fishing vessel, the Lu Huang Yuan Yu 186, was escorted into Cape Town Harbour and searched. The vessel, and at least nine others, tried to evade authorities. Picture: Michael Walker

Cape Town – Three Chinese fishing vessels suspected of illegally operating in South African waters recently have been cleared of poaching, but were fined more than R2 million for other offences.

A joint statement issued by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and SA Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), said all three vessels intercepted and detained in May in East London had been released a week ago.

The vessels were charged and found guilty of possessing Gear on board without gear permit. Two of the vessel masters were found guilty of non-compliance with the Lawful Instruction of a Fishery Control Officer.

All three vessels were also found to have contravened SAMSA legislation related to threats of environmental pollution and degradation.

South African authorities said the vessel masters paid all the fines and were authorised to depart for China from East London port on June 23.

The statement said that in May, DAFF had joined forces with the navy to conduct sea patrol within the South African coastline.

A Fishery Control Officer had been deployed on board the South African Navy vessel and “that joint operation resulted in capturing of three foreign vessels which were instructed to call to East London Port”.

“The vessels arrived at the Port at the night of 22 May 2016 accompanied by the DAFF vessel Sarah Baartman and the SA Navy vessel SAS Drakensberg,” the statement said.

“A thorough inspection was done on all three vessels by all law enforcement agencies in East London – the South African Police Services, SARS Customs, Department of Home Affairs (Immigration), South African Maritime Safety Authority.

The foreign fishing vessels were found to have tons of fish on board. The Fu Yuan Yu 7880 had about 340 tons of squid with 36 crew, Fu Yang Yu 7881 had some 60 tons of squid with 34 crew and Run Da 617 was laden with 200 tons of squid and other species of fish with 26 crew.

“Further investigations were conducted to establish, among other things, whether the fish on board was fished in South African waters and the outcomes of the scientific tests showed that it was not fished in our waters,” the statement said.

“We therefore had no legal grounds to confiscate the fish as it was not fished in our waters.”

However, dockets were opened and registered with the police and the Vessel Masters were respectively charged for contravention of Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 and the charges included; Possession of Gear on board without a Gear Permit and not complying with the Lawful Instruction from the Fishery Control Officer.

“On 15 June 2016 all the three Vessel Masters appeared in East London Magistrate Court and they were found guilty for possessing Gear on board without gear permit and were fined R600,000 in total for that offense,”said the statement.

“The vessel master of Fu Yuan Yu 7880 and the Vessel Master of Fu Yang Yu 7881 1 were also found guilty of non-compliance with the Lawful Instruction of the Fishery Control Officer and were fined R50,000 each.

“Additional to contravening Marine Living Resources Act, the three Vessel masters were also found to have contravened SAMSA legislation and were consequently fined R1.3 Million in total. The SAMSA legislation related charges involved determined threats of environmental pollution and degradation.”

“The capturing of these vessels indicates our seriousness as a country to protect our Marine Living Resources in our territorial and exclusive economic zone,” warned the statement, adding that plundering of those resources will not be tolerated.

“South Africa takes seriously with determination its responsibility to ensure compliance with international and domestic environmental and safety laws designed and implemented to ensure a healthy and safe environment for all users of our oceans.”