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Spain mourns worst fishing tragedy in 40 years

Search teams have so far confirmed 10 dead and rescued three survivors. ©AFP

Madrid (AFP) - Spain was in mourning Wednesday for its worst fishing tragedy in almost 40 years, as Canadian rescuers warned it was unlikely they would find any of the missing 11 crew members alive.

Search teams have so far confirmed 10 dead, rescued three survivors from a life raft, and the search continues for those unaccounted for.

"Once again the people of the sea have been hit very hard," said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of Spain's northwestern Galicia region where the boat was based.

"Galicia is a big family and when a family is struck by a tragic event, it unites in grief to seek comfort," he said in announcing three days of mourning for the victims.

In Madrid, lawmakers observed a minute of silence in parliament for the dead and the missing from the trawler, which went down some 250 nautical miles (463 kilometres) east of Newfoundland, leaving just three confirmed survivors. 

Of the 24 crew members, 16 were Spanish, five Peruvians and three Ghanaians. 

Luis Planas, Spain's agriculture and fisheries minister, described it as "the biggest tragedy in the fishing sector in the last 38 years" -- a reference to the Islamar III, a sardine boat that sank off the Canary Islands in July 1984, claiming 26 lives. 

"This is a job which not only is very hard but is also very dangerous," he added.

Planas said eight vessels, among them Spanish and Portuguese fishing boats, had joined the search for survivors from the Villa de Pitanxo, after the 50-metre (164-foot) fishing vessel sent out a distress signal at 0424 GMT on Tuesday. 

Challenging weather

By Wednesday morning, hopes of finding the 11 missing crew members were fading.

"Although we still hope to find survivors alive, it is now unlikely that other survivors will be found," Canadian military Lieutenant Nicolas Plourde-Fleury told AFP in an email, adding that the search continued.

"We are talking about a rescue..in extremely difficult sea conditions, with water temperatures that mean as soon as a person falls in they won't last long," said the Galician leader Feijoo. 

Writing on Twitter, Spain's sea rescue service said rescuers were battling very rough seas with "6-7 metre high waves" that were "complicating the search operation and making visibility difficult". 

It was not immediately clear what caused the boat to founder.

Planas said it was operating in a fishing ground "of immense value but which also has very significant climatological problems". 

Among the survivors was the ship's captain, Juan Padín Costa and his nephew Eduardo Rial Padin, whose mother expressed her relief in remarks to Spain's public television. 

"I am relieved because he is alive, thank God, but sad because that can't be said for many of his colleagues," said Gloria Padin Costas. 

So far, there has been no information publicly released about the victims or those still missing at sea.

"Although we may not be able to find survivors, it is very important for the families to collect the bodies," the head of the Shipowner's Cooperative in the northwestern Spanish city of Vigo, Javier Touza, told TV station Antena 3.

'Survival a matter of minutes'

Back in Galicia, families of the crew were desperately awaiting news about their loved ones. 

"We just want to know if he is dead or alive," Carlos Ordonez told La Voz de Galicia newspaper, referring to his nephew William Arevalo. 

"We already know what happens when you fall into waters like those around Newfoundland.Survival is a matter of minutes."

The survivors were found on a life raft by a Spanish fishing boat five hours after the Villa de Pitanxo sent out a distress call. 

Suffering from hypothermia, they were airlifted to safety by a Canadian helicopter. 

"No one is emotionally prepared to receive such shocking news," said Galician leader Feijoo, vowing "to honour those who lost their lives at sea".

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