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Coast Guard officers have impounded two fishing trawlers, with more than 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel, believed to be taking part in a racket in which the fuel is bought at subsidised prices and traded on the high seas for near market value. According to Public Relations Officer of the T&T Coast Guard, Lieutenant Kirk Jean-Baptiste, the vessels were intercepted last Thursday morning when a Coast Guard’s fast patrol craft was on routine patrol in the Gulf of Paria. The vessels were observed to be “low” in the water as if they were carrying excess weight. Jean-Baptiste said they were boarded and the crew questioned. It was discovered that of the seven members of the two crews, four were not nationals of T&T and were in T&T illegally.
In addition, the crew in the trawlers had no bait and there was a strong smell of fuel. Investigations by the T&T Guardian have revealed the men are Guyana nationals and have since been handed over to the Immigration Department. The vessels were taken to Coast Guard headquarters, Staubles Bay, where they remained impounded while investigations are continuing. Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, Coast Guard Commander Hiram Mohammed and the head of the Customs and Excise Department Fitzroy John later toured the vessels. John said the seizure was part of a stepped-up effort to deal with the illegal resale of diesel fuel. He said there were already people who were before the courts charged with the offence.
He added: “This is an ongoing battle. We have increased the fight as the Government has indicated the loss could be as high as $1.5 billion.”
Officers from Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri) also were called in to take samples of the fuel to confirm it was diesel and to ensure a case could be built to be taken to court. Following the tour of the vessels, the Ramnarine said it appeared the trawlers had been specially configured to carry the diesel.
He added: “It appears to me that they would have had to do a lot of work to ensure that the vessels were configured this way and I am sure that will be part of the investigations.” The minister said his ministry had taken both administrative measures to reduce the leakage of diesel subsidies from the system and he was particularly happy with the Coast Guard taking action and intercepting the vessels.
Ramnarine added: “The issue of the fuel subsidy is very important to this Government because, as you know, the subsidy is well over $4 billion this year and it is costing the country a lot of money and so we have put in place administrative measures to deal with the issue.” Ramnarine did not elaborate on the administrative issues but the T&T Guardian has learnt that in studying the problem the ministry found that almost the same amount of diesel was being sold as is gasoline and in so doing it recognised there had to be a major discrepancy. Investigations also showed there were some fishing vessels buying more diesel than they could possible use for fishing. Ramanarine promised the crackdown would continue to end the racket.