France, Australia Join Forces Against Toothfish Pirates

CANBERRA, Australia, November 24, 2003 (ENS) - In the choppy, freezing waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica fishing vessels seek the lucrative Patagonian toothfish, seen on restaurant menus as Chilean or Antarctic sea bass. For each of the legal fishing boats there are several pirate vessels, but the net is tightening around illegal fishers.

Today, Australia and France signed a maritime cooperation agreement that opens the way for tougher action against illegal fishing operations in the Southern Ocean.

The treaty establishes a formal framework for cooperative surveillance and research activity by France and Australia in their respective territorial seas and exclusive economic zones in the Southern Ocean.

Australia and France said today that the two governments "share a common desire to protect the valuable fish resources found in our neighboring exclusive economic zones in the Southern Ocean, and the unique marine environment of those waters."

The treaty provides for cooperative surveillance activity, and will ensure that both Australia and France have a more complete picture of activities in our respective remote waters.


The Uruguay flagged fishing vessel Viarsa 1 flees an Australian patrol boat in hot pursuit through the Southern Ocean. August 2003. (Photo courtesy Australian Customs)
Under the treaty, France and Australia have agreed to exchange information on the location, movements and licensing of fishing vessels and will work more closely together to fight illegal fishing.

Over the past decade, illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean has increased, and toothfish have been targeted by foreign fishing vessels in Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone around Heard Island and the McDonald Islands.

France's Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Islands also have been hit hard by illegal fishing vessels. France has imposed high bonds and fines for illegal fishing and has sunk convicted pirate fishing vessels abandoned in La Reunion by their crews and owners.

The waters around Kerguelen Island border the Australian EEZ, both of which make up the Kerguelen plateau, a known hot spot for pirate fishing.

The signing of this treaty follows the apprehension of the suspected illegal fishing vessel Viarsa 1 in August, and demonstrates the seriousness with which Australia and other countries view the threat of illegal fishing.

A 21 day, 3,900 nautical mile chase - the longest in Australia’s maritime history - ended August 27 when Australian, UK, and South African official vessels surrounded the Viarsa 1 some 2,000 nautical miles southwest of Cape Town, South Africa. The Uruguay flagged Viarsa was inside the Australian Fishing Zone near Heard Island and McDonald Islands, allegedly fishing for toothfish.

The newly signed treaty between Australia and France also shows "the high level of cooperation between countries on illegal fishing issues, and sends a strong message to illegal fishing operators who seek to plunder the world's oceans, completely disregarding the long term damage they cause for the sake of a short term profit," Australian Fisheries Minister Senator Ian Macdonald said today.


Australian Fisheries Minister Senator Ian Macdonald (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
Both France and Australia are among the 24 member nations of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which manages the toothfish fishery.

CCAMLR requires all vessels hunting for Patagonian toothfish to be fitted with a satellite system. When fish is sold, the importing country can check the satellite records of the fish boat and find out where it has been fishing.

Boats that have no satellite system cannot sell fish, and if a vessel without a license to fish the Antarctic waters is detected in the area it will be caught by the authorities.

In addition, new measures were put in place to attack illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean earlier this month following a two week CAMLR meeting in Hobart, Australia.

Senator Ian Macdonald said that he was delighted with the steps taken by the 24 CCAMLR member nations. "Australia's action in pursuing the Viarsa 1 has hardened world opinion against illegal operators, and has led to significant new initiatives that will put illegal operations under substantial pressure," he said.

CCAMLR member nations agreed to adopt, on a trial basis, Australia's proposal for a Centralized Vessel Monitoring System to be managed by CCAMLR, and funding was approved for the system.

Seven countries, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ukraine, USA, Uruguay and Argentina, have agreed to participate in the trial of the new arrangement.

"Other member nations will be looking at joining the scheme with the European Union specifically indicating that it would be consulting with its member countries to agree to involvement," said Macdonald.

Member nations also agreed to continue the trial Electronic Catch Documentation Scheme with technical and administration complications to be resolved during the trial period. This scheme requires that each master or authorized representative of its flag vessels complete a toothfish catch document for eachcatch landed or transhipped.

CCAMLR also adopted a blacklist of boats that are known to be engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

"All 24 member nations have agreed that they will not deal in Patagonian toothfish caught by any of the boats listed on the blacklist," said Macdonald, who added, "Japan, a major buyer of legally caught Patagonian toothfish, has specifically indicated that it will not accept toothfish from any boat on the blacklist."


The Russian pirate fishing vessel "Lena" was apprehended by Australian authorities in the Australian EEZ around Heard & McDonald Islands on the Kerguelen Plateau in March 2002. It was subsequently scuttled. (Photo courtesy COLTO)
The Russian delegation, however, refused to accept that any Russian flagged boats would be included on the blacklist.

"Russian flagged boats, like the "Lena," already arrested and found guilty by Australian courts, were not allowed to be included, and the Russians also refused to allow the "Volga" to be named even though the boat had been arrested by the Australian Navy almost two years ago," Macdonald said.

Macdonald praised the Uruguayan delegation for its assistance and support, which builds upon "the cooperation established between Australia and Uruguay at the time of the Viarsa chase."

"I'm confident that the CCAMLR nations will build upon this very positive start, and I look forward to working cooperatively to rid the planet of the criminal gangs that put personal profit before the future of our marine ecosystems, and the sovereignty of nations of the world," Macdonald said.

Scientists estimate that at the current rate of fishing, the toothfish fishery will collapse within a very few years. Many thousands of vulnerable and endangered seabirds, mainly albatross and petrels, are dying on hooks intended to catch toothfish.

Greenpeace, which has been campaigning for toothfish protection, warns that the catch documentation, satellite observer and blacklist methods adopted by CCAMLR will not be effective in safeguarding the vulnerable fish.

Greenpeace and the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators both have lists of pirate toothfish vessels, but the illegal fishing has not stopped.

Greenpeace is urging CCAMLR to declare and enforce a moratorium on fishing for toothfish. The moratorium should stay in place until the IUU fishery has been driven out, the remaining toothfish stocks assessed for their ecological ability to support a commercial fishery, and regulations are in place to adequately manage "resumed" fisheries, the environmental organization says.

This moratorium needs to be supported by a trade ban in toothfish, that would require toothfish to be listed for protection on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which permits no international trade.

Antarctic fish are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because most species take a long time to become sexually mature and are long lived. Toothfish can live as long as 50 years and do not breed until they are at least 10 years old. They live in deep waters on sea mounts and continental shelves around most sub-Antarctic islands.

Toothfish is highly valued in restaurants in Japan and the United States which are the largest consumer markets for the delicacy, followed by Canada and the European Union.