A daring on-water joint operation in high seas off the NSW coast has resulted in the seizure of an alleged tonne of cocaine worth $250 million and the arrest of three men.
Police said a “suspicious foreign fishing vessel” was first detected on August 11 and the boat and its cargo were seized on Saturday during a daring operation by Australian Federal Police, NSW Police and Australian Border Force officers after a tip-off from New Zealand authorities.
The small boat, the Coralynne, was seen “zig-zagging” as it moved off the coast near Newcastle.
ABF NSW Commander Danielle Yannopoulos says it’s probably the country’s biggest cocaine bust in three years.
“Just to give you a bit of an idea, the ABF seized about 760 kilos of cocaine last financial year,” she said on Tuesday.
“This is likely to be the biggest cocaine detection since 2017.”
Border force officials boarded the trawler, which was on fire, about 150 nautical miles off the coast in 3.5 metre seas, arrested three crew and towed the cocaine-filled trawler back to Sydney’s Balmain.
Authorities are working out exactly much cocaine was seized but believe it could be up to a tonne.
“If we work on the basis that it’s a couple of hundred kilos, up to one tonne, then the street value is between $100 million and $250 million,” AFP Assistant Commissioner Justine Gough told reporters.
NZ intelligence reported the boat to Australian authorities on August 11, after it was tracked in a stretch of ocean not usually visited by trawlers.
Australian intelligence officers then observed the boat meeting a “mother ship” when, they will allege, the drugs were transferred.
Its believed the bigger vessel could have come from South America.
The men arrested on the Coralynne – two Australians aged 27 and 32 and a 40-year-old Hong Kong man – appeared in Sydney’s Central Local Court on Monday and were refused bail.
NSW Police State Crime Commander Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith said the need to mitigate the spread of coronavirus added another layer of difficulty to the operation.
“A lot of this product comes from countries that are at risk, and are dealing with the risk of COVID-19,” he said.
“We go through this profile of how are we going to deal with it and then, obviously, all the staff are briefed.”
Investigations are continuing.