Search abandoned for missing Antarctic fishing vessel

SYDNEY (AFP) - The search for a fishing boat missing near Antarctica was called off on Tuesday, with officials saying there was no chance anyone aboard had survived in the harsh polar environment.

The 75-metre vessel issued a distress signal early on Sunday which showed it was in the southern Indian Ocean about 650 kilometres north of the Antarctic mainland, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.

An Australian air force P3 Orion plane and a civil aircraft were sent to find the boat, which is suspected of being involved in illegal fishing, but they spotted only debris in the area where the distress beacon was activated, with no signs of a life raft or people in the water.

"Based on medical advice... in the current weather conditions there is no chance of survival," AMSA said, calling off the search in the iceberg-studded waters.

The rescue agency said the crew would have had to contend with seven-metre swells, winds of 70 kilometres an hour and air temperatures of -17 deg C.

"Expert medical advice indicated that even under the best circumstances, namely the crew abandoning ship into a dry life raft, there is no prospect of survival," it said.

AMSA initially believed the ship was a Tanzanian-flagged fishing support vessel but later said that due to discrepancies in its records, the authorities had been unable to determine who owned it, its flag state or why it was in the area.

Antarctic waters are home to the Patagonian toothfish, a prized delicacy in seafood restaurants, and AMSA said: "Indications are the vessel may have been involved in illegal fishing activities."

An AMSA spokesman declined to speculate on how many crew members would have been aboard a 75m vessel.