Illegal Iceboats Feel the Heat in Australia

DARWIN, Australia, October 23, 2006 (ENS) - Boat crews who threw missiles and threatened Australian naval officials with a samurai sword while trying to evade capture have received some of the heaviest penalties ever handed down to illegal fishermen in Australia.

Today, Darwin Supreme Court handed down a two year prison sentence for the master of a boat who hurled bottles filled with concrete at Australian naval personnel and threatened them with a samurai sword.

Crew members from other boats received prison sentences, ranging from 18 months to three months, plus fines of up to Aus$60,000 (US$45,429).

A further six crew members apprehended during the operation are facing similar charges.

The crews were aboard seven iceboats when they were apprehended by Australian naval vessels on July 14.

According to official court transcripts, Australian naval vessels HMAS Dubbo and HMAS Success, supported by a Coastwatch surveillance flight, located several iceboats by radar about 30 nautical miles inside the Australian Fishing Zone.

Typically such iceboats use a dragnet to trawl the seabed before freezing their catch on board. They target valuable reef fish and also harvest shark fin along the 11,000 kilometer (6,835 mile) coastline of Australia's Northern Territory.

The court heard that officers from HMAS Dubbo met with stiff resistance when they tried to intercept one of the boats, a wooden, 22 meter (72 foot) Indonesian Type III Ice Boat.

"Poles of approximately two meters in length were rigged on both sides of the vessel and fishing lines were used as obstructions by being towed astern," the court was told.

"Two crew members later identified to be [defendants] Yanto and Abdul Muin, were seen to be throwing concrete-filled plastic bottles at the boarding party. The crew attempted to hit the boarding party with sticks as they approached and tried to grab hold of the vessel."


Australian Fisheries Management Authority Officer, Claire Davies, displays a samurai sword used by an Indonesian fisherman to threaten navy officers during the apprehension of seven illegal fishing boats in July. (Photo courtesy AFMA)
"The vessel steered away from the boarding party but one member was able to get aboard," the court was told. "Yanto removed a samurai sword from its scabbard and held it upright. The boarder drew his pistol and then Yanto surrendered. The remainder of the boarding party were then able to board the vessel."

Naval officials found fishing gear comprising 200 hooks on a long line, which were spaced about two meters apart. A search of the vessel uncovered freshly caught fish on the deck including shark fins, seven ice holds on deck with bait fish, as well as fresh and frozen reef fish in holds beneath deck.

Concern about the shark finning trade has grown in recent years as demand has surged beyond sustainable levels for slow to produce shark populations and without regulation in most countries. Three shark species are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and 20 percent are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN 2006 Red List of Threatened Species.

Fins are the most commercially valuable part of the shark. Fishermen slice them off as the shark, sometimes still alive, is thrown back into the ocean. The fins are used in shark fin soup, a delicacy served at Chinese weddings and other celebrations for centuries and more recently at business dinners in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Shark fin soup is erroneously considered an aphrodisiac or regarded as beneficial to health, although studies have shown no healthful benefits.

A paper published as the cover story in this month's edition of "Ecology Letters" estimates as few as 26 million and as many as 73 million sharks are killed each year worldwide - three times higher the number reported originally by the United Nations.


Shark fins drying in the sun (Photo courtesy UCI Biomechanics)
"Ecology Letters" is published on behalf of France's National Center for Scientific Research, a government funded research organization, under the administrative authority of France's Ministry of Research.

The prosecution in Darwin was the culmination of investigations by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

Minister for Fisheries Senator Eric Abetz welcomed the penalties. "I commend the Court for recognizing the seriousness of the offences and imposing strong penalties," he said. "This outcome will send a clear message to illegal fishers that Australia will not tolerate acts of violence."

Minister for Defence Brendan Nelson commended the efforts of the crews from HMAS Dubbo and HMAS Success.

"The importance of the Navy's role should not be underestimated. Members of the Royal Australian Navy show great courage and determination protecting Australia's sovereign waters from foreign fishing vessels. Australia won't sit back and allow our waters to be plundered by foreign fishers," Nelson said.

The Australian government allocated a record Aus$500 million (US$378 million) to combat illegal fishing in Australia's northern waters this year. Some 281 boats fishing illegally were apprehended last year but with increased funding authorities hope to target at least 650 vessels this year.


Australian authorities apprehend a suspected illegal fishing vessel in Australia's Great Southern Ocean, 2004. (Photo courtesy FAAAA)
Boats can range from an engine powered canoe to trawlers with 40 people on board equipped with sophisticated Global Positioning Satellite tracking devices.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Australia's northern neighbors from some of the 17,000 islands which make up the Indonesian Archipelago, have traditionally fished Australia's northern waters.

Dr. Merrilyn Wasson, a former chair of the Arafura and Timor Seas Experts Forum, maintains that illegal fishing is part of a global problem.

The forum represents the countries to Australia's north whose fishing stocks, Dr. Wasson argues, are being plundered by large, foreign owned interests. She singles out Danish and Spanish fishing companies, which lost fishing territories under European Union trade agreements and cites Taiwan and Thailand as lesser offenders.

"What tends to happen is that the nations that lost out, flag-of-convenience their mega deep water fishing trawlers and end up in the waters of developing nations," said Wasson. "You will find them off the coast of Africa."

"In Indonesia, there are over 4,000 illegal deep water fishing trawlers," said Wasson. "Indonesia should be getting from its marine resources US$4 billion per annum - US$4 billion! So large is the problem of illegal fishing that it gets only $700 million. That means that $3.3 billion per annum goes to other nations."