Federal authorities have confirmed a surge in illegal fishing off Australia’s northern coast, with 101 vessels intercepted since July.
- Devastation caused by Cylone Seroja in Indonesia is one of the reasons behind the spike in illegal fishing
- 101 illegal fishing vessels have been intercepted in Australia’s northern waters over the past three months
- Instead of being detained, illegal fishers are being escorted out of Australian waters because of COVID
For the first time, authorities have confirmed COVID-19 safety restrictions mean they are no longer detaining the captains and crews of vessels, instead escorting them from Australian waters.
The growing number of Indonesian fishing boats operating within the Rowley Shoals Marine Park, 300km off the coast of Broome, has prompted outrage from local fishermen and tour operations over environmental damage, and even piracy.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) says 101 fishing vessels have been intercepted in Australia’s northern waters in the past three months, compared to 85 for the entire 2020-21 financial year.
AFMA general manager for fisheries operations Peter Venslovas told the ABC a number of factors were driving the increase.
“Potentially the damage by Cyclone Seroja and the need for operators to make money to recover their losses,” Mr Venslovas told the ABC.
“There are other push factors — COVID issues in places like Indonesia, folks moving back to regional towns and away from areas where they used to have jobs.
The target is trepang, or sea cucumber, which can fetch $15–$30 a kilogram at Indonesian markets.
Well-managed fish stocks in Australia’s waters, particularly in protected areas like Rowley Shoals, make for a particularly ripe target.
“So it’s a lucrative activity to them if they can get away with it,” Mr Venslovas said.
Crews no longer detained due to COVID
The pandemic has also restricted the authorities’ ability to detain the crews of the illegal vessels and take them into custody.
Where fishermen may have previously been taken into detention on the Australian mainland, quarantine and COVID-safe requirements now prevent this.
Instead, vessels are boarded with any illegal catch and equipment seized.
The boats themselves, however, cannot be scuttled at sea unless it is safe to do so, meaning some fishers are simply ordered to leave, or escorted, out of Australian waters.
“Interceptions and interactions are done in a way to maximise the safety of crews on the boats and also the Australian public,” Mr Venslovas said.
“To bring foreign nationals into Australia in the current environment poses risks that would need to be more closely managed.”
He said it was too early to say whether the changed approach could simply result in the same fishermen returning to Australian waters after they were escorted out.
Intelligence, surveillance and international cooperation the keys
While local skippers and tour operators have questioned the government’s response to the incursions at Rowley Shoals, Mr Venslovas said a significant response was being mounted.
Twelve patrol boats have been deployed off the top end to target and monitor illegal fishing, with regular surveillance flights taking place over the marine park and other critical areas.
“Maritime Border Command and the Navy have assets out there. Any illegal fishing is not good, and won’t be tolerated,” Mr Venslovas said.
“Responses and actions will be undertaken to identify and catch these people, and undertake enforcement action.”
But with Australian waters encompassing an area of open sea larger than the Australian mainland, surveillance and intelligence are critical.
Mr Venslovas said work was also being done with local authorities in Indonesia to stop the boats from leaving port.
“We’ve been working upstream, at the source ports where these fishers are coming from,” he said.
“We’re getting a lot of cooperation in Indonesia in sending these messages out.”
WA’s Fisheries Minister Don Punch said it was critical the government took stronger action in response to the repeated incursions into the marine park.
“The Rowley Shoals are a valuable ecological asset,” he said.
“They are home to an incredible number of species of fish and some of the most spectacular coral atolls in the world.
He said the government would work with local tour operators to ensure further sightings and other intelligence was passed on to federal agencies as efficiently as possible.