So what do we know to date about the "Chinese" named but apparently flag-less vessels spotted in SA waters?
According to the Minister of Fisheries, Mr Zokwana, the fleet of brand new fishing vessels were sailing to the Congo from China. Apparently, they were new-build vessels for an unnamed Angolan fishing company.
It would appear that after they were intercepted by the EPV Lilian Ngoyi in South African waters near the Bird Island Group MPA, the fleet received instructions from the owners to split up and ignore all instructions from South African authorities proceed to port.
The result is that an estimated 8 vessels have escaped while 1 vessel has been arrested and is presently in Table Bay Harbour.
What is apparent is that these fishing vessels entered the SA EEZ without having first been given permission to do so under the Marine Living Resources Act, 1998. That would amount to a violation of section 39 of the MLRA. A violation of section 39 carries a fine of R5 million, together with the possible forfeiture of the vessel (and any fish on board).
Further violations include failing to adhere to the lawful instructions of a fishery control officer. In addition, if the vessel is indeed flag-less, the vessel is a de facto pirate vessel under international law.
It is unclear at this stage whether they were engaged in IUU fishing in our waters although the citizen reports on the Facebook Page "Saltwater Fishing" seem to indicate that the vessels may very well have been targeting sardines - which is unlikely. It is more probable that the vessels were targeting large pelagic fish species that follow the sardine shoals. These prized large pelagic species would include sharks (for fins) and tunas and swordfishes.
The Minister has indicated that the arrested vessel, once forfeited to the state, will not be sold on auction but will instead be converted to a patrol vessel. This strategy is to be applauded given that South Africa requires additional at-sea patrolling capabilities and new-build vessel programmes will not be funded by the National Treasury at this time. If we recall, South Africa converted the lobster poaching vessel Eagle Star back in 2003 and used it successfully as a patrol vessel until it was inexplicably sold in about 2007 for less than the value of the diesel on board the vessel.
In so far as the remaining 8 IUU vessels are concerned, it does appear that South Africa has ceased pursuing the vessels and as such the vessels are not subject to hot pursuit. However, South Africa needs to share all relevant information with neighbouring states, including the Congo (the country of intended destination) and Angola (the apparent domicile of the new vessel owner), that these vessels are suspected of IUU fishing in SA waters and that they need to denied port entry under the provisions of the Port State Measures Agreement.