Saturday, May 4, 2013
Ocean pursuit leaves toothfish pirates with nowhere to run
An Australian-backed illegal fishing watchdog in Asia is on the heels of some of the last toothfish pirates, as a long-plundered fishery moves to a sustainable catch - and to local meal tables.
A fishing vessel believed to be loaded with millions of dollars worth of Southern Ocean toothfish is being tracked through Malaysia and Indonesia, where it was stopped from landing its catch in a joint operation with Australian fishing managers.
Known as the Thunder, or Wuhan, and operated by a Spanish company, the 1100-tonne ship is one of a handful believed to be still operating in the Antarctic, rapidly switching their names and registrations in efforts to escape detection.
Coastwatch aircraft and the Australian Navy detected Thunder in the Indian Ocean near Christmas Island in April, and a regional strike force denied it port access in Penang, Malaysia, and Bali, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority said.
The pursuit is being claimed as a victory for the 11-nation Regional Plan of Action on responsible fishing. ''Illegal fishing is becoming less viable,'' said the authority's general manager of operations Peter Venslovas. ''By cutting off the market end of illegal fishing operations, those responsible are finding it increasingly difficult to offload their catch.''
Since the mid-1990s, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish has been hauled out of the Southern Ocean by illegal fishers chasing a species known as ''white gold''.
At its peak, the uncontrolled catch was estimated to be more than 100,000 tonnes a year, or six times the legal fishery, according to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
The federal government chased, and caught, a series of suspected pirate boats, culminating in a 21-day pursuit of the Viarsa 1 in 2003 - a case which resulted in acquittal after two trials in Perth.
Some fishers wanting part of the bonanza paid with their lives. The vessel Amur sank west of Australia's Heard Island in 2000 with the loss of 14 men. Another 22 seamen died aboard the No.1 Insung in the Ross Sea in 2010.
The commission set up a hook-to-market paper trail to help control the fishery, but executive secretary Andrew Wright said in the Southern Ocean, it was impossible to know exactly how many illegal fishing boats were still operating.
Instead some were found accidentally, such as the 2500-tonne Iranian-flagged fish freezer cargo ship Koosha IV, which gave evasive reasons for being near the Antarctic coast in 2011.
Others, such as Thunder, were being cut off near their markets.
A commission list said Thunder was owned by Spanish company Vistasur Holdings, based in the small port of Combarro in the state of Galicia - long a home to the toothfish trade.
The Vidal family, based in the region, operated a series of vessels in the Antarctic. Senior figure Antonio Vidal Pego, whose ships included Viarsa 1, was convicted of obstruction of justice in Florida over the importation of toothfish in 2006.
The Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators said the last vestiges of pirate fishing appear to have moved into the high Antarctic, close to the ice edge.
Meanwhile legal operators have obtained ''blue tick'' Marine Stewardship Council approval for a series of toothfish fisheries, including from around Australia's sub-Antarctic Heard and Macquarie islands.
Standing at more than 60 per cent of the unfished estimate of 116,000 tonnes, the remote Heard Island stock and the smaller Macquarie fishery are high-value export earners for Australian fishers.
Hobart-based Martin Exel, general manager of environment and policy for Austral Fisheries, said about 60 tonnes of toothfish was sold annually on the Australian market, compared to total quotas of 3185 tonnes.
Mr Exel said with a growing body of proof of sustainability in the legal catch, Austral Fisheries expected to increase sales of toothfish in Australia soon.
''Toothfish will remain a high-value export ,'' he said. ''But I'd hope to see the premium end of the Australian market also eating more Australian toothfish, and that it flows through to the public more generally.''
Read the original article here
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Andrew Darby
Photo courtesy of Paul Cziko/ Wikimedia