Cape Town -
When a fisheries patrol vessel intercepted three foreign vessels fishing illegally off the coast they found “modern-day slaves” forced to live and work in appalling conditions.
Some of the crew, mainly Indonesian and Taiwanese, had been working on the tuna fishing vessels for between three and five years without being paid.
On Thursday, Ceba Mtoba, chief director of control and surveillance at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said in terms of the SA Maritime Safety Authorities regulations, the vessels were not fit to sail.
“(The crew) were living in pathetic conditions. It was absolutely terrible, completely inhumane to treat people like that,” Mtoba said.
Bernard Liedemann of fisheries’ law enforcement said on Thursday: “It was basically modern-day slavery. If we had not intervened, this treatment would have gone on unnoticed. At least we have got these vessels out of commission.”
The fisheries patrol vessel Victoria Mxenge escorted the vessels from offshore of Camps Bay to Cape Town harbour and seized the vessels.
During their investigation another seven vessels belonging to the same owner were later found docked in Cape Town harbour. The vessels had fake registration documents. There were 75 crew on the 10 vessels.
The fisheries department established that:
* The tuna on board had no catch documentation and was probably caught illegally.
* The crew were living in cramped, dirty conditions and some had to sleep on the floor on old blankets or bits of cardboard.
* The toilets were broken and filthy.
* Some crew had been away from their countries for up to five years and had not been paid in that time.
* Crew said two vessels belonging to the same owners had sunk at sea.
* Two crew members had died at sea in unknown circumstances.
Fisheries contacted the Indonesian and Taiwanese authorities and alerted the Department of Home Affairs, who took the crew into care at Lindela Repatriation Centre until they could be repatriated.
There was a total of about 160 tons of frozen tuna on board the vessels, some of which may have been fished in South African waters. The department seized all the vessels and the tuna, which is being kept in cold storage. In terms of the agreement, the skippers were left on each vessel for safety reasons.
Then on December 29 two of the fishing vessels, Samudera Pasific No 8 and Berkat Menjala No 23, snuck out of Cape Town harbour and have not been seen since.
On Monday, fisheries asked for Interpol Purple Notices so that other vessels might be able to locate the escapees, and also to warn other countries of the potential threats posed to the safety and security of the people on board.
“It was a well-planned escape. We don’t know if they have crew on board or where they got the crew. Everyone is looking out for them, but they have not been seen.
“It is possible that the vessels have been sunk purposely. They would have organised a waiting vessel, transferred the crew and then sunk the vessels to escape prosecution – but that has not been confirmed,” Liedemann said.
The vessels that are still in the harbour are the Bahari Nusantara, the Bahari Nusantara No 83, No 19, No 5 and No 26; the Bintang Sumudra No 11, the Sumudra Gilontas No 231 and the Mahklta Abadi.
The fisheries department is pursuing the owners and is in the process of getting the vessels forfeited to the department.
Officials face a problem about what to do with the 160 tons of frozen tuna, mainly yellowfin and albacore. In terms of international agreements, illegally fished tuna may not be traded.
“But it is all fit for human consumption, so we’re taking legal advice on what we can do with it, whether it can be donated,” Liedemann said.
Home Affairs spokesman Lunga Ngqengelele said on Thursday that he was aware of the situation, and confirmed that the crew had been sent to Lindela. He could not confirm whether all crew had been repatriated, and referred the Cape Times to the provincial manager, who was not available for comment.