PUERTO LEMPIRA, HONDURAS - The Aqua Quest, a U.S. ship heading to dredge old-growth cedar and mahogany from Honduras' Patuca River bottom, has been seized by police there and its crew jailed.
Aqua Quest International, based in Tarpon Springs, FL, in May sent its ship on a mission to salvage old growth logs submerged for more than a century - part of a joint business development program for the local Miskito Indians in in the Ahuas district of Honduras.
Aqua Quest International carries on a salvage business, combining local business development, tourism, and education with its efforts to retrieve sunken cargoes.
Robert Mayne, who heads the company, recounted the events as they unfolded at Aqua Quest's Facebook page:
On the afternoon of May 5th, 2014, the U.S. flagged vessel Aqua Quest, entered the Caratasca Lagoon opening eight miles from the docks of the small town of Puerto Lempira in the Mosquito Coast area where it was to check in with the Port Captain. The team was traveling to Honduras to work on a cooperative project with the Municipality of Ahuas and Miskito Indians; a project several years in the making and one that would have a positive effect on the struggling residents.
The Honduran Navy placed a Pilot on board to guide the Aqua Quest through the shallow canal and into port. The pilot instead ran it up on a sand bar. The Captain of the Aqua Quest was finally able to get to shore just before the Port's office closed for business at 4 p.m. The Port Captain said it was too late to fully process their customs entry that day but confirmed that he would be ready at 6 a.m. to review their paperwork and told them to get a good nights rest.
While the crew was sleeping, Naval and Local Police boarded, claiming to have authority to inspect the vessel and seized the Aqua Quest and arrested/imprisoned the crew. The next morning the Port Captain objected to the seizing of the vessel and the crew but was ignored by the local police.
At the arraignment hearing thirty hours later, the Port Captain continued to protest that proper procedures were not followed. He stated that any firearms on board, if not allowed onto Honduran territory, would have been kept in his offices.
At a hearing on Tuesday May 13th, 2014, the men were ordered to be further illegally detained for the false firearms charges. The boat was placed in the custody of the Honduran Navy.
The laws and procedures surrounding the case are clearly on the side of the Captain and crew. They are disputed only by the local judge and prosecutor. The ship was well within its rights to protect itself while traveling in troubled International waters.
Mayne says the chain of events that brought him and five colleagues to jail results from a legal error on the part of the local police. The regional government secretary told a reporter, "They have been kidnapped by the system." Mayne says he still intends to proceed with the plan, once he is freed.
The old-growth logs sank to the bottom of the Patruca River more than a century ago when large scale logging was carried on in the area. Preserved in the low-oxygen environment, the wood is said still to be viable for milling into lumber and millwork, and for furniture production.
Logging underwater trees has been a profitable pursuit in areas where forests have been have been submerged by dams or shifting river flow. Specialized craft with remote saws are used uin the operations.