Environmental activist group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society says it is chasing two illegal fishing boats that were spotted sailing just 50 nautical miles from Australia’s Mawson Base in Antarctica ::::
The New Zealand navy made an unsuccessful attempt to board the two boats after they were discovered operating illegally in the Southern Ocean last month. The New Zealanders pursed the Yongding and the Kunlun for about a week before returning to New Zealand.
Sea Shepherd has criticised Australia for not taking up the chase when the New Zealand navy had to return to port to refuel. The activists report the boats are now in waters that Australia claims as part of the Antarctic territory.
Sea Shepherd Captain Sid Chakravarty said he found the boats on Monday near Antarctica.
“I told the captains that they were wanted by the Interpol, they were fishing illegally in these waters, they did not have permit,” Captain Chakravarty said.
He said the ships were close to Australia’s Mawson Station on Tuesday morning but they were not fishing at the time.
“The decks of both the vessels are loaded with gill netting gear, which is a banned fishing method inside the … region,” Captain Chakravarty said. “They were discharging fish offal and guts over the side as well which would indicate that the vessels had recently been engaged in fishing operations and are probably cleaning their decks and storing the fish taken illegally into their freezers.”
Sea Shepherd said it believed the true owner of the boat was a Spanish syndicate.
Australia Urged to Deploy Customs Vessel
The New Zealand government said it was pursuing the matter with the Spanish government to try to find out if the owners of the boat are based in Spain and can be prosecuted there.
Mr Chakravarty said Sea Shepherd was planning to take action in the Southern Ocean to stop the illegal fishing.
“I’ll be using the Sam Simon directly as a blockading tool and putting my vessel behind these fishing vessels where they run their fishing gear out from and that should pretty quickly end their fishing operations,” Captain Chakravarty said.
Tasmanian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson called on the Federal Government to send a Customs ship down to the Southern Ocean to intercept the illegal fishing boats.
“The Ocean Shield was promised by the Liberal government in opposition,” Senator Whish-Wilson said. “A promise that they would send this customs vessel down to patrol the Southern Ocean. They’ve recently reiterated that promise; they said there’d be two 40-day patrols to patrol for unregulated illegal fishing.”
“They need to send that boat immediately.” Senator Whish-Wilson reiterated.
A specialist in Antarctic policy at the University of Tasmania, Julia Jabour, said while Australia claimed sovereignty over the waters that the ships were in, not many other countries recognised the claim.
“Sea Shepherd in their press release have suggested or in fact criticised the Australian Government for not responding to the presence of these vessels in Australian waters and I’d like to reiterate that they are not Australian waters,” Ms Jabour said. “But if they had been, for example, another couple of hundred nautical miles north and were in fact in Heard Island or the McDonald Island exclusive economic zone, which is without a doubt Australian water, then you would see a response from Australia. But the Australian Government is not doing nothing, simply because there is nothing they can do.”
A spokesman for Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said Customs patrols were conducted based on ongoing assessments of operational priorities across all maritime security threats. He said they could not say when or if a patrol was being sent to the Southern Ocean because of what the Minister’s office calls “operational security purposes”.
The New Zealand navy has made unsuccessful attempts to board two fishing boats found operating illegally in the Southern Ocean. The NZ government was granted permission to board the Kunlun and the Songhua by Equatorial Guinea – under whose flag they sail – but the captains of both refused to cooperate.
The crew of HMNZS Wellington had observed the two ships, as well as the Yonding, fishing illegally for Patagonian toothfish in the Ross Sea near Antarctica. All three, which are known to be repeat offenders, ignored requests by the Wellington to stop fishing.
New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully said the Wellington now had the right to board the vessels to verify their status, but they have refused to cooperate.
“Due to the conditions and the evasive tactics of the masters it was not possible to safely board these vessels,” Mr McCully said. “While this is disappointing, it is important that we keep the safety of the New Zealand crew as our paramount consideration.”
Mr McCully said the ability to take “enforcement action” was a high priority.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “There are a range of vessels that are able to operate there under tight management and one of the purposes of the Wellington being in the vicinity is to ensure that those tight management requirements are being adhered to by all the players. It makes a mockery of the whole process to have vessels with no permit come in from outside, basically flout all of the rules and plunder and damage the resource. So we’ll take every conceivable step we can to stop this practice.”
Illegal fishermen Using Banned Nets
The crew of the Wellington gathered photographic and video evidence while they were waiting. They claimed the fishermen had been using illegal gill nets, which have been banned in the area since 2006.
The events followed the Sea Shepherd activists intercepting another illegal fishing vessel, Thunder, which had previously been impounded by the Australian Government.
The Australian Greens have pressured the Government to follow New Zealand’s lead, saying Australia was being “shown up” by New Zealand.
Senator Whish-Wilson said Australian Customs had promised the Navy’s Ocean Shield vessel would conduct patrols this summer.
“We’ve got Sea Shepherd chasing an illegal fishing boat across the Southern Ocean, we’ve got the New Zealand navy threatening to board and to impound two illegal fishing boats – but where’s our Government? Where is the Australian Customs vessel? It should be down in the Southern Ocean doing its job. The reason it was purchased by the Australian taxpayer and that is to patrol our area of responsibility in the Southern Ocean.” Senator Whish-Wilson said.
Mr McCully said New Zealand worked very closely with Australia and was confident there would be cooperation over the coming days, but he said it was not necessary for Australia to send a Customs or Navy vessel to support the Wellington at this stage.
All four illegal vessels are believed to be working for a prominent Spanish syndicate but this is hard to prove given the complex international structures under which they operate.
Efforts to Stop Illegal Operators Cashing in Their Catch
Mr McCully said efforts had to be made to thwart the vessels and operators cashing in on their catches, believed to be worth millions, at ports around the world.
“They have to unload the fish if they’re going to profit from their ventures,” he said. “We’ve already issued the appropriate notices through Interpol. We’ll be making sure that the Spanish government is aware of the concerns we’ve got about the connections with the Spanish company involved. We want to throw the book at them and make sure that we put them out of business.”
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which regulates the waters off Antarctica, said the fishermen were clearly using banned bottom-set gill nets.
Executive secretary Andrew Wright said CCAMLR was trying to stop the illegal catch from being offloaded.
“CCAMLR will work through other diplomatic means to encourage port states in particular to deny access to these vessels where they might seek to land their catch or to reprovision and also work through other international organisations such as Interpol,” Mr Wright said.
Crackdown on Patagonian Toothfish Poaching in the Southern Ocean
While the New Zealand navy is trying to stop three ships poaching Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish in the Southern Ocean, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is in hot pursuit of another. The illegal fishing boats, believed to be carrying a catch worth $8 million on the black market in South-East Asia, are all flying flags of convenience to avoid prosecution.
All the ships have been given a purple notice by Interpol for illegal fishing, but finding and prosecuting the ships’ owners is a difficult, if not impossible, task.
Fishing in the Southern Ocean is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
CCAMLR sets the fishing quota limits for the Southern Ocean and has 25 member states, including Australia and New Zealand.
The reason illegal fishing boats fly flags of convenience is because if they are fishing from a boat that is not signed up to the CCAMLR agreement then the illegal fishing boat is simply fishing on the high seas and prosecution is almost impossible.
The only way to prosecute a boat for illegal fishing is to prove that its owner is from a country signed up to CCAMLR.
When HMNZS Wellington tracked down the Yongding, Kunlun and the Songhua, they were all flying the flag of Equatorial Guinea but New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully was suspicious.
“In the past, two of these vessels have been linked to the Spanish-based syndicate, Vidal Armadores SA,” he said.
“They have to take these boats somewhere, they have to get reprovisions somewhere.
“They have got to unload the fish somewhere, and we’re going to track them down and we’re going to take whatever action is open to us legally wherever they go.”
If the illegal fishing vessels were owned by a Spanish company then the executive secretary of CCAMLR, Andrew Wright, said “it’s left with the flagged state concerned and the CCAMLR member country concerned to pursue a prosecution for those vessels through their own domestic legislation”.
The first illegal ship found this summer was a boat called Thunder, bearing the Nigerian flag.
It was a well-known repeat offender, and it seemed her days of illegal fishing were over in April last year when she was seized in Malaysia and the captain and crew fined $90,000.
But deputy director general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Vice Admiral Ahmad Puzi said the Thunder got to keep its illegal catch.
“What we charged them with is under a foreign fishing vessel through Malaysian fishery waters, then we have to return the fish to the captain.” Vice Admiral Puzi said.
Senator Whish-Wilson said he wanted the Australian Navy to join the New Zealand navy in patrolling the Southern Ocean.
“We’ve obviously got a revolving door of illegal fishing going on in the Southern Ocean and the kind of fine that we’re talking about here is really just a slap on the wrist,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.
The federal parliamentary secretary with responsibility for fisheries, Senator Richard Colbeck, said it was not about sending patrol boats to the area, but rather working with countries in Asia to deny the illegal fishers access to ports.
“The best way to prevent people illegally accessing the fishery is to take away their market so they’ve got nowhere to sell the fish,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.
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image source: nz.defence.force/sea.shepherd