Resurgence of illegal fishing ‘unacceptable’ as fishers say fish stocks are suffering

Resurgence of illegal fishing ‘unacceptable’ as fishers say fish stocks are suffering

Fishers say highly organised illegal poaching of Australia’s fish and marine life is having a significant impact on fish stocks in the country’s remote northern waters.

Key points:

  • Illegal fishing activity in Australia’s north has increased significantly
  • Fishers say it is damaging the marine environment, and tough action needs to be taken 
  • Since July authorities have found 86 boats in Australian waters

Northern Wildcatch Seafood operator Grant Barker, whose fleet of five boats fish remote waters off the West Australian and Northern Territory coast, said it was common to see Indonesian fishing boats operating within Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

He was concerned about the impact of illegal fishing on Australia’s fish stocks. 

“Depending on the time of the year and where our boats are fishing, we might have interactions with them 15 or 20 times a year,” he said.

Grant Barker has been commercially fishing in the Top End for 20 years.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

“In the northern area, there are areas where our skippers don’t bother going fishing much anymore because these [illegal fishers] have picked all the fish out.

“They’re not silly, they work out where we fish.”

Northern Wildcatch Seafood supplies to Australian restaurants and retail outlets.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

He said the fishers usually used boats up to about 12 metres with engines.

“They’re catching gold band snapper, saddle tail snapper and red emperor sharks,” he said.

“Pretty much anything they can catch that sits on the bottom of the ocean, which is the same species we target commercially.”

He said that included the baby clams and the trepang sea cucumber.

“Anything else they can take from those reef systems that are in our Commonwealth marine parks,” he said.

Commercial fishers says they see Indonesian fishers throughout the coloured region.(ABC Landline)

Structured and organised

Mr Barker said illegal fishing was highly organised and designed to take as much catch as possible.  

“They’ll come in with the smaller motorised boats, and they set a bigger one up on the Indonesian side [of the border] that supplies them with fuel and ice,” he said.

“We call them an ice boat or a mothership.”

He said the fishers unloaded their catch to the bigger boat.

“They ice the fish down and give them more fuel, give them more ice,” he said.

Mr Barker said he was noticing increasing amounts of smaller boats, which would not be capable of sailing alone from Indonesia.

He said most boats he saw were at Ashmore Reef, 170 kilometres south of Indonesia, but illegal fishers had also been spotted as far south as the Rowley Shoals, 300km west of Broome. 

Both of the reef areas are covered in part by marine parks. 

Compliance shortfall

WA Fishing Industry Council chief executive Darryl Hockey said he was concerned about illegal fishing becoming more organised to take larger catches. 

He said fishers were losing grounds to new or expanded marine parks around Australia.

He is frustrated by a lack of compliance and management of areas from which fishers had been locked out.

Darryl Hockey says compliance measures need to be ongoing.(ABC: Armin Azad)

“It’s important that we don’t just have a blitz then walk away because the problem is just going to return,” he said.

“We need an ongoing program that is going to require collaboration between state and federal jurisdictions, and the commercial fishing industry here in WA is here to help as well.”

He said colleagues in eastern states were reporting “a lot of activity” around Timor and south of West Papua as well.

“There is every likelihood these fish that are being illegally taken out of marine parks in WA’s north are being taken overseas to be processed, and they’re are being imported back into Australia and consumers here are eating them off their plates in restaurants,” he said.

WA Fisheries Minister Don Punch said the impacts were not acceptable.

“The fishing industry is dependent on sustainable fishing practices, and illegal fishing threatens that,” he said. 

Resurgence since COVID

Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AMFA) chief executive Wez Norris acknowledged illegal fishing was a growing problem.

Wez Norris says more illegal fishers are being detected.(ABC Landline: Adam Kennedy)

He said 86 boats had been intercepted fishing illegally in Australian waters since July.

“What we are facing at the moment is a resurgence of an historic issue that was largely thought to have been resolved,” he said. 

“Back in the mid-2000s and in particular 2005-06, we saw an enormous number of illegal vessels from Indonesia fishing in our waters.

“What we have seen since COVID is those numbers increasing again due to a whole range of factors, including COVID-induced economic pressures in the Indonesian villages where these vessels are coming from, so what we are facing now is a very high number of those incursions.” 

Indonesian fishers in the MoU Box are only permitted to use traditional methods.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

While acknowledging the environmental issues illegal fishing caused, Mr Norris said there was little evidence to support claims fishers were taking demersal fish species.

He said they were predominantly targeting the highly prized trepang and shark fin. 

It comes after Indonesian fishing vessel Alwi Jaya was caught fishing in Australian waters earlier this year.

On board was an estimated 250 kilograms of trepang, or sea cucumber, 15 shark fins, fish, and fishing equipment.

Mr Norris said he had seen little evidence to support claims of organised ice boats storing catch. 

Risking lives for Australia’s fish

The human toll of illegal fishing has also had an impact in Australia. 

At least 18 Indonesian people are thought to have died in Australian waters in the past two years after their boats were caught in tropical cyclones. 

“A lot of these crew are young boys, the age of 14, 16, 17 and 18, who are going to sea on these fishing boats, leaving Rote Island and other islands in that Indonesian archipelago and not coming home,” Mr Barker said. 

He said many more people died at sea than was reported, and a harder line was needed to deter people from risking their lives at sea. 

Mr Norris said the strategy for managing illegal fishing was under constant review. 

He said authorities had created a multi-agency “surge operational” to have a “high visibility deterrence effect” earlier this year. 

The 10-day operation uncovered 18 illegal fishing boats in Australian waters. 

He said AFMA had also rolled out a series of public education campaigns in Indonesia.

An illegal fishing vessel is destroyed at sea.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

Eight of the 86 boats found since July this year were destroyed, a figure Mr Barker said should be higher. 

“The repeat offenders, they’re recidivists,” he said.

“They’re the same guys that are doing it every year over and over again.

“If we stop them illegally fishing and illegally entering our waters, and we burn enough of their boats and get rid of enough of their assets, we’ll stop them drowning every year in the marine parks.” 

Watch ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday or on ABC iview.

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