The South Tomi was a fishing vessels seized after being caught illegally fishing for Patagonian Toothfish in Australian waters.
The South Tomi was later purchased by the City of Geraldton in 2003, as a unique way of promoting the “Shipwreck Coast”. The South Tomi was sunk about 3kms off the Geraldton coast to create an artificial reef which provides an easily accessible diving alternative to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (60km offshore).
On the 29th of March, 2001 the Australian Fishing Authorities sighted a suspicious vessel off the West Australian coast, near Heard Island. The vessel was the South Tomi, a West African-registered (Togo) fishing boat.
When the skipper of the boat realized they had been spotted he decided to make a run for it. The authorities were having none of that and decided to give chase.
The chase would become one of the longest pursuits in Australian maritime history, lasting for 14 days & covering 3,300 nautical miles (6,100 kms) and involving an Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) chartered patrol boat, the Australian Defense Force and the assistance of the South African and French governments.
When the South Tomi was finally captured 320 nautical miles (600km) off the coast of Cape Town, by the Australian Defense Forces, they discovered the vessel was carrying $1.5 million worth of Patagonian Toothfish, which had been illegally caught in Australia’s exclusive economic zone. The vessel was immediately seized & the crew arrested.
The illegal catchment of Patagonian Toothfish was eventually sold at market for $1.4 million and the proceeds were forfeited to the Commonwealth after the owners decided not to challenge the confiscation action taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
In April 2003 the confiscated boat was put up for auction in Fremantle . The City of Geraldton purchased the boat for the purpose of creating an artificial reef which would provide an easily accessible diving alternative to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (60km offshore). The City also saw the purchase of the ship as a ideal tourism opportunity to promote the “Shipwreck Coast”.
In April 2003 the vessel was towed to Geraldton and stripped of its content and fittings prior to being sunk off the coast near Bluff Point. In September, 2004, South Tomi was towed approximately 2.9 nautical miles off the coast of Geraldton to be scuttled. Hundreds of people gather at vantage points to watch. The sinking was undertaken by international expert Roy Gabriel, from the Canadian Artificial Reef Consulting Company. The water depth at her finally resting place is 24m, with the mast being 10m from the surface.
The artificial reef is expected to attract thousands of diving enthusiasts to Geraldton each year. The South Tomi is the second illegal Toothfish poaching boat seized and sunk as a dive wreck ,the 55-metre Lena was also scuttled off Bunbury, WA in 2003.
The Fate of the Crew
Following investigations, the Spanish skipper Leonardo Manuel Aviles was subsequently charged and convicted for fishing illegally in Australian waters he pleaded guilty to two of the charges and was ordered to pay $136,000 in fines. Fittingly the fine was the largest imposed on an illegal fisher caught in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. The rest of the crew were sent back to their respective countries in 2001, at the expense of the vessel’s owner.
So What is a Patagonian Toothfish ?
The Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) is a highly sort after and valued fish which is often found in restaurants in Japan and the USA. It has a very strong distinctive taste and is often grilled or poached. The fish is relatively large, weighing up to 200kg and can grow to a of length of about 2.5m. The fish can be found swimming in cold, temperate waters. It is also known by several names including Chilean Sea Bass, Merluza Negra and Mero. The main countries which catch and supply the Patagonian Toothfish are Chile, Argentina, France and Australia.