Photographs obtained by the ABC reveal a surge in illegal Indonesian fishing crews operating close to the Australian mainland, seemingly under the nose of federal border protection agencies.
- Indonesian fishing boats are brazenly cruising into Australian waters
- Australian operators say they are also concerned about piracy
- Locals fear enforcement has reduced because of concerns about staff contracting COVID-19
Multiple operators have provided footage and photographs showing foreign fishermen scooping up seafood and clambering on delicate coral atolls within the Rowley Shoals Marine Park.
The boat skippers say it’s the first time they’ve seen Indonesian crews at the coral reefs, which are located 300 kilometres off the coast of Broome.
Ross Newton has been running boat charters in the area for more than 30 years.
He says he is worried the influx of illegal fishers has occurred because authorities are no longer boarding boats to due COVID-19.
“I’ve never seen an Indonesian boat there before, but on this last trip we saw seven individual foreign vessels, which is very worrying,” he said.
“We’re not sure if it’s because of COVID, that the authorities aren’t boarding them and sending the back like they normally would.”
The witnesses interviewed by ABC are all licensed to operate in the area.
Fishing is prohibited in the Rowley Shoals Marine Park but a small number of charter boats take tourists diving and snorkelling in the area.
Skipper Harley Cuzens also visited the area in early October and said he was shocked by number of Indonesian men brazenly collecting seafood.
“I actually left the Rowley Shoals in a hurry because I was very worried about piracy,” he said.
“It was concerning knowing full well that we weren’t armed, had no protection and these guys were running rampant around our border security.
Authorities deny COVID enforcement cut
Traditional Indonesian fishing is permitted at the Scott and Ashmore reefs, which are located further north.
But the Rowley Shoals sit further south and closer to the mainland, and are covered by a series of sanctuary zones aimed at protecting fish stocks and the delicate reef systems.
Government aircraft and boats are constantly patrolling the area, raising questions about why the spike in illegal entries has not been stopped.
Locals who have witnessed the influx believe enforcement has reduced due to concerns about staff contracting COVID-19 while intercepting illegals vessels.
The federal agencies involved deny the claims.
In a statement, the Australian Border force said it was still actively intercepting boats.
“Foreign fishing vessels are using a variety of fishing methods to target trepang, shark and fin-fish,” the statement reads.
“The Australian Border Force has a range of capabilities to detect, deter and disrupt unlawful activities.
“COVID-19 has not reduced the surveillance and response efforts. Our on-water response has been adjusted to minimise the transmission of COVID-19 into the Australian community.”
The ABC has confirmed that at least two illegal boats have been intercepted on October 4, with fishing equipment seized and the vessels directed to leave Australian waters.
Emails reveal agencies aware
The main concern for local boaties is how quickly the coral atolls will be stripped of marine life and crushed by people walking on the reef.
Yachtsman Jonas Klein is another skipper who has witnessed the influx of foreign crews.
“We were watching the Indonesian crew through the binoculars, and it was confronting to see,” he says.
“I certainly don’t begrudge the Indonesian fishermen and their need to continue traditional fishing, but the Rowley Shoals are one of the last truly pristine coral reef systems we have left in the world, so I hate to think the damage they’re doing.”
Emails obtained by the ABC show dozens of reports and complaints have been made to federal authorities in recent weeks.
In one response, staff from Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development said that an ‘interagency response’ was being developed in response to the recent influx of foreign vessels.