Illegal fishing threatens local livelihoods – If you buy seafood at the supermarket, enjoy a takeaway from the local fish and chips shop, live off the land or simply enjoy wetting a line on the weekend, then you have reason to be worried.
The reason is illegal Indonesian fishermen. What’s particularly alarming is that their numbers are increasing, few are being caught and the impact on our economy is increasing.
Figures released under Freedom of Information laws show that in the last financial year, over 8100 illegal foreign fishing boats were spotted in our waters at an average of 22 a day, with only 202 trawlers (0.25 percent) seized (all were Indonesian).
Minister for Fisheries Ian Macdonald describes the 8100 figure as “silly”, as some trawlers may have been spotted more than once. However, interpreters who look after captured illegal fishermen say detained Indonesians estimate that only one in 14 boats are caught.
These are not subsistence fishermen either; most boats are equipped with modern technology such as GPS satellites and use large ice blocks to freeze tonnes of illegally caught fish. They are also indiscriminate in what they catch; any fish, no matter how small or endangered, will eventually find its way into an Indonesian marketplace.
However, what the fishermen bring with them may create an entirely different set of problems even more significant than the fish they take away. Many of the boats have chickens, parrots, rats, dogs, even monkeys on board, any of which may carry diseases such as tuberculosis, rabies or bird flu; any of which could threaten public health or devastate farming industries. There have also been reports of fishermen setting up camps on Australian beaches, stashing equipment, digging wells and, presumably, latrines.
Local fishermen in Darwin say the illegal trawlers are becoming smarter; many will fish in close to the Australian coastline but then return to international waters if they think they’ve been spotted by Customs. The boats are also entering and fishing in Australian waters at times when it’s harder to discover or capture them, such as at night or even during storms.
To many of the crew, the possibility of capture is not a deterrent. Many are young, paid a small wage and consequently view the whole exercise as a big adventure. If caught, they are treated well and given food and clothing before being flown back home on a commercial flight. The offending boat is usually burnt, which is of little concern to anyone except the captain or owner.
The impact on Australian fishing is also escalating, with many fishermen having to compete for increasingly limited fish stocks with Indonesians, who have no restrictions on what they sell back home. Local fishermen believe the increased competition, along with rising petrol prices (which raise costs), will inevitably lead to consumers paying more for seafood.
Some are concerned the fish will disappear forever. One Darwin fishermen summed up how much illegal and indiscriminate fishing could hurt the industry. “Well”, he said, “you never hear of anyone being eaten by a shark in Indonesia, do you?”
By Tim Arvier
National Nine News Darwin reporter