December 6, 2005

Australia Battles Illegal Fishing in North, South

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA -- Leaning over the edge of their rickety wooden fishing boat the Indonesian fishermen attach long sharpened pieces of bamboo to the side of the vessel in a bid to fend off an Australian navy patrol boat pursuing them.

Warning shots are fired across the bow of the rogue fishing boat as a navy inflatable vessel tries in vain to pull alongside.

The lengthy chase is eventually called off and the Indonesian fishing boat escapes, probably with a valuable catch below, but another 220 other fishing boats haven't been so lucky this year.

A crackdown on illegal fishing by the Australian government has seen 1,760 crew apprehended and their boats destroyed. A total of 432 masters and senior crew have been charged with offences, with lower order crew sent straight back to Indonesia.

Another 242 boats, illegally fishing for shark fin, have also been intercepted and ordered out of Australian waters and their fishing gear confiscated.

"I'd like to see the day when Indonesian fishermen don't come into our waters," Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald told Reuters in a statement.

"But until that happens we will just keep arresting them and sending the message that we don't tolerate people pinching our fish stocks."

Indonesian fishermen, are venturing into Australian waters to fish for lucrative shark fin because they have depleted their own stocks. Shark fin is a delicacy in Asia and can earn Indonesian fishermen a small fortune of up to A$200 a kilo.

Australian National University Professor James Fox said that villagers on the Indonesian island of Roti had told him that more than 100 men had died on fishing trips to Australian waters during the past two years.

"There are now well over 400 bodhi (shark fishing) boats that sail regularly on a weekly basis into Australian waters," Fox told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Some Indonesian fishermen have tried to avoid capture by brandishing burning poles, knives and machetes, the Australian government has said.


Australia has spent tens of millions of dollars boosting its border security with several new patrol boats and more customs officers in the north and by arming its boat in the remote Southern Ocean with a deck-mounted machine gun.

Australia is not only trying to fight illegal fishing on its doorstop, but also internationally and recently co-sponsored a report that found that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing was worth around $1.2 billion a year.

The report, The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing, was presented to the United Nations in Geneva last month and found that 15 percent of the world's large-scale fishing fleet fly flags of convenience (FOC) or flags with unknown identities.

"It costs only a few hundred dollars to buy an FOC and with that FOC vessels and fishing companies are free to catch millions of dollars worth of fish and threaten other forms of marine life on the high seas with impunity," the report said.

It names Belize, Honduras, Panama and St Vincent and the Grenadines as the top five flag of convenience countries.

Australia has problems with FOC vessels fishing in its remote southern waters for Patagonian Toothfish, also known as Chilean Sea Bass.

"The amount of pirate fishing in that neck of the woods has drastically decreased," Macdonald said.

Canberra's campaign against illegal fishing was spurred by a 21-day chase through treacherous icy seas in August 2003.

Australia spent A$5 million chasing the vessel seen fishing in Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone around Heard and McDonald islands and the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, 4,000 km (2,500 miles) southwest of the West Australia coast.

A 92-ton catch of Toothfish was found on the Uruguayan ship when it was finally caught off South Africa and escorted back to Australia, but in a blow to Australia's crackdown the five crew were cleared of illegal fishing last month.

The white, flaky flesh of the rare fish, dubbed "white gold," is in high demand in Asia and the United States and one shipload is worth up to A$5 million.

Marine conservationists have warned the toothfish could become commercially extinct by 2007 because illegal fishing above the quotas was already depleting dwindling stocks.


Australia appears to be winning the fight against illegal fishing in its southern waters, but it has had to step up its presence in its northern waters to combat hundreds of illegal fishing boats from Indonesia.

Macdonald has already raised the issue of illegal fishing with Indonesia and is due to hold talks on the issue again with Australia's northern neighbor before the end of the year.

Concerns have also been raised about the quarantine risk posed by illegal Indonesian fishermen reaching the Australian mainland.

While the cases of Indonesian fishermen reaching the mainland have been rare, main opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley said it still showed Australia's maritime security was not up to scratch.

"It's completely unacceptable that anybody is making un-quarantined landfall," Beazley has said. "It's got to stop. And, of course, if you can do that for illegal fishing purposes, you can do that for terrorist purposes as well."