Pilot weary of fishing life faces criminal charges in Marshalls

11:44 am on 20 July 2020

A Spanish pilot who said he missed his family after spending months on a boat in the Pacific is facing illegal entry charges in the Marshall Islands after he took off from a vessel in a fish-spotting helicopter and landed on a remote atoll.

Pictured is one of the Win Far tuna fleet purse seiners with a helicopter on the bow

Pictured is one of the Win Far tuna fleet purse seiners with a helicopter on the bow Photo: Karen Earnshaw

He is to appear in court in Majuro on Friday to report the result of ongoing negotiations for a plea bargain settlement of the criminal charges.

Jose Eduardo Marinho Goncalves, 39, a Brazilian and Spanish citizen, was charged with entry without valid visa, failure to surrender any document, and entry at an unofficial port of entry after he was arrested by the country's Sea Patrol officers.

His arrest followed islanders on Mili Atoll reporting the surprise arrival of Mr Goncalves by helicopter last month to government authorities in Majuro.

His initial court appearance was delayed until the end of last week because he was required to spend 14 days in quarantine to meet the country's Covid-19 prevention requirements. He was released from quarantine after testing negative.

Chief Public Defender Russell Kun is representing Mr Goncalves, and is engaged in plea bargain negotiations with Attorney General Richard Hickson.

High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram at a hearing last week scheduled a follow up hearing for 24 July to hear a plea bargain proposal from the two sides.

Mr Goncalves told Marshall Islands law enforcement officials the day after he landed on Mili that the reason he left the Win Far 626 purse seiner that was fishing in Kiribati waters is he was "tired of eating fish and rice" and wanted to see his family.

Mr Goncalves is a contract pilot with Hansen Helicopters, a Guam-based company that provides helicopter services to many purse seiners in the region.

The charges against Mr Goncalves state that the pilot used a helicopter from the Taiwan-flagged Win Far 626 that was fishing in Kiribati waters to fly two-and-a-half-hours to Nallu Island in Mili, an atoll about 128 kilometres south of the capital, Majuro.

The pilot "took off without permission and unannounced from the vessel," according to an affidavit by Marshall Islands Immigration Director, Mercyba Balos.

A Hansen Helicopters representative on Majuro, Jeffery Sarmimos, reported the incident to Marshall Islands Immigration after the helicopter took off from the Win Far 626.

Ms Balos was part of an Immigration, police and Ministry of Health group that went to Mili on the Sea Patrol's vessel Lomor to pick up Goncalves after local residents reported his arrival in the helicopter.

She described him as "very cooperative," and said the pilot told her the reason he flew away from the purse seiner is "he just wanted to go home with his family. He repeatedly said he is tired of eating fish and rice almost every day."

When not flying helicopters on fishing vessels in the Pacific, Mr Goncalves is a resident of Madrid, Spain.

High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram released Goncalves on his own recognizance following last week's hearing pending the outcome of this Friday's plea hearing.