Surge in illegal fishing off northern Australia

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Illegal fishing boat. Image: ABC News (Jonas Klein)

THE ABC has reported a surge in illegal fishing off Australia's northern coast.

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.

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.

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," 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.

"Essentially, fishing vessels from Indonesia are now starting to encroach further south."

The target is sea cucumber or "trepang" which can fetch $15–$30 a kilogram at Indonesian markets.

"So it's a lucrative activity to them if they can get away with it," Venslovas told the ABC.

The pandemic has also restricted the authorities' ability to detain the crews of the illegal vessels and take them into custody.

"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.

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," 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.

Venslovas said work was also being done with local authorities in Indonesia to stop the boats from leaving port.

"The message to Indonesian fishers is: 'Don't come here. It will involve the seizure of your catch, your equipment and your boat, so don't try your luck'.

"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," Punch said.

"They are home to an incredible number of species of fish and some of the most spectacular coral atolls in the world.

"Fishing at Rowley Shoals is carefully managed to ensure stocks are not at risk from fishing activities, and Border Force must act to protect this pristine natural asset."

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.

Source: ABC News

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