A court in the Philippines acquitted 122 Vietnamese fishermen of violating the country's territorial waters after a three-day hearing Friday, Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu said.
The fishermen, all from the central province of Binh Thuan, were arrested on May 30, as Filipino police found the papers they presented upon their arrival weren't legal.
According to Tu, 85 of the fishermen were released on Friday, while others accused of keeping rare marine species will be released next Wednesday after legal procedures are completed.
The two captains of the boats where rare sea snails were found have been asked to pay 40,000 pesos (US$945) in fines, Thanh Nien reporters found, adding that the snails were Trochus niloticus, locally known as samong, Cassis cornuta (budyong), and Charonia tritonis (tambuli).
Nguyen Thanh Nhan, one of the two captains, said they caught a couple of snails in the waters off the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago for fun, because their shells were beautiful.
In the meantime, the fishermen's seven boats have been transferred to Palawan Province authorities and a decision on their fate has yet to be made.
"The embassy and the boats' owners will continue to work with provincial and national agencies of the Philippines so the boats can be returned to the Vietnamese fishermen soon," Tu said.
The ambassador said he was optimistic about the chance that the boats would be released.
"After all, the fishermen were just victims. And the boats were their lifetime properties," he said.
Tthe fishermen had come to the Philippines under a contract with the Ho Chi Minh City-based Long Hai Long, which signed a contract with the Philippines-based Premiere International Interfishing to acquire fishing licenses for the fishermen.
However, since the fishermen were arrested, the foreign company's representative, Kho Tho Min, has been nowhere to be found.
Also on Friday, Tu and several Vietnamese officials from the embassy found places for the fishermen to live while waiting for their boats to be released.