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Cold shoulder follows record hot pursuit

A RUSTING blue vessel was escorted into Fremantle Port this week to face allegations its crew took $1.5 million worth of Patagon-ian toothfish from Australian waters near Heard Island.

This latest in a series of similar incidents involved a ship called the South Tomi and has confirmed the determination of fishing operations to plunder the valuable fish stocks in the Southern Ocean, at times illegally.

The South Tomi was first sighted in Australian waters on March 29. The vessel was suspected of illegal fishing and ordered to Fremantle by the Southern Supporter, a craft char-tered by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to patrol the Southern Ocean.

What followed was the longest hot pursuit of a suspected illegal fishing vessel in Australia’s history, after it turned to sail towards the French fishing zone and then South Africa.

Federal Minister for Fisheries Wilson Tuckey said the operation had demonstrated Australia’s deter-mination to protect its sovereignty and economic assets.

Mr Tuckey defended the high cost of the operation, saying the chase and subsequent apprehension of the South Tomi sent a clear message to nations willing to jeopardise the $30 million fishery at Heard Island and McDonald Island in the Southern Ocean.

“I wasn’t interested in how much (it cost), I was interested in catching that boat,” Mr Tuckey said.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that it’s (illegal fishing) fairly hazardous in Australian waters.”

The two legal fishing licences for the waters around Heard Island are currently managed by Austral Fisheries, which hauls in about 2,950 tonnes of the fish a year, worth about $25 million.

Patagonian toothfish are exported almost exclusively to the US and Japan, where the white, oily fish is popular for both its delicate flavour and because the flesh freezes well.

Austral Fisheries chief executive officer David Carter said fishing companies are selected to apply for a licence in the area based on a number of criteria including a contribution to Australia.

“Our management costs are really heavy, it’s a real user pays environ-ment,’ he said.

“We spend about $800,000 a year to be compliant with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, not including 20 days’ compulsory research and a huge reporting requirement.”

Austral Fisheries also has to pay for two full-time observers on any operation in the waters around Heard Island to comply with AFMA requirements.

Mr Carter said Austral Fisheries had a major role in cooperating with a number of different groups to get the Patagonian toothfish subject to a trade certification scheme.

Under the scheme, traders must hold official papers to buy or sell Patagonian toothfish.

Illegal operators, however, buy fish without papers for a slightly lower price, launder it and resell it with papers.

“The bad guys buy fish without papers and launder them through somewhere like China, and it’ll reappear and be sold on the legal market with papers,” Mr Carter said.

The rusty, battered vessels favoured by the illegal fishing operators are usually worth substantially less than the catch, a single haul worth $2 million could cover the operator’s initial outlay for a ship and equipment.

“These operations pay for the boat on the first trip and if they get caught the next time around they’re still ok,” Mr Carter said.

Penalties for illegal fishing in Australian waters depend on the case put together by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Although changes have been made to the act to make to strengthen it the Director of Public Prosecutions has failed to forfeit the vessel or equip-ment in the past three incidents involving international vessels illegally fishing in Australian waters.

In two of these cases the vessels were held under bond but, once that bond was paid, the ships sailed out of Fremantle.

Higher level convictions can attract fines of up to $550,000, less than half the total value of the haul uncovered on the South Tomi.

Whilst the owners of these vessels remains overseas it’s very difficult for the Commonwealth to success-fully prosecute.

It’s believed that if the South Tomi hadn’t been spotted the crew would have continued fishing for several weeks until they had caught as much fish as the boat could carry.

“My hope is our legal process ensures this vessel stays put and is not released on any terms,” Mr Carter said.

Penalties will depend on the case put together by the DPP and, ultimately, the court’s assessment of the case put together on behalf of the Commonwealth.

An international treaty signed by nations concerned about protecting their fishing zones is attracting interest and more countries are signing up, albeit slowly.

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