Authorities have swung into action in Australia’s northern waters, destroying illegal Indonesian boats and seizing hundreds of kilograms of fishing gear and seafood. 

Key points:

  • Authorities intercept 16 vessels allegedly fishing illegally off the north-west coast, and burn three of them
  • Australian Border Force, the Australian Navy, and WA Fisheries seize 630kg of trepang, and fishing apparatus
  • The ABF denies a commercial fisherman’s assertion it only acted after media attention

The Australian Border Force (ABF) has released photographs showing the small colourful boats burning at sea in the wake of the three-day operation near the Rowley Shoals Marine Park off the northern Western Australian coast.

The actions come after local tour operators raised the alarm about dozens of foreign boats in the area, saying they feared piracy during recent trips.

Rear Admiral Mark Hill, who heads the Maritime Border Command, said three boats were destroyed and 13 others escorted out of Australian waters.

“We have had a busy weekend where we have encountered 16 vessels fishing illegally, and responded in conjunction with WA Fisheries,” he said.

a large patrol boat and several small fishing vessels surrounded by sea

The patrol boat HMAS Larrakia joins other Australian fisheries authority vessels in intercepting illegal boats off Australia’s north-west coast.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

Economic factors

Fishing equipment was seized from the boats before they were led out of Australian waters, and a total of 630 kilograms of trepang – or sea cucumber – was confiscated.

Admiral Hill said the Indonesian fishermen did not seem surprised by the interception.

“They’re accustomed to it because sadly we see a few recidivists,” he said.

None of the fishermen were detained or prosecuted, despite that being an option previously pursued by authorities.

Admiral Hill said the increase in illegal fishing was being driven by economic factors in Indonesia rather than any reduction in enforcement by Australian authorities due to COVID safety concerns.

Officers were still boarding illegal vessels when needed, he said, but wearing PPE to minimise the risk of COVID transmission.

A man looks at fish and equipment on a boat.

Some of the catch and equipment discovered on illegal fishing vessels in the vicinity of the Rowley Shoals.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

Sustained effort needed

The operation has been welcomed by Australian fishermen, although some say authorities were slow to act and only did so following media publicity.

Grant Barker, the director of Northern Wildcatch Seafood Australia, said he had been concerned with increasing numbers of illegal fishing vessels for some time.

“We spend quite a lot of time working with Border Force, AFMA [Australian Fisheries Management Authority] and WA Fisheries, trying to keep on top of them.”

Mr Barker welcomed the news that 16 vessels had been intercepted, with three destroyed.

“Working together to mitigate that problem and get these people away from the oceanic reefs and back over their side and into their waters again,” he said.

Two boats.

Australian Border Force says 16 vessel were illegally fishing near the Rowley Shoals.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

But he was concerned that the effort was too slow and only came after commercial fishers and charter operators approached the media.

“The ABC broke this story … a couple of weeks ago, and I think that prompted the government and the authorities to collaborate and mitigate the problem,” Mr Barker said.

“We shouldn’t have to do that, we should be better than that.”

Admiral Hill rejected the claim, saying surveillance and interceptions were ongoing.

“I’m disappointed to hear that people think that our response time to the increasing activity at the Rowley Shoals was slow,” he said.

A ship and two boats.

The ABF, the Australian Navy, and WA Fisheries collaborated in seizing 630kg of trepang, and a range of fishing apparatus.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

Mr Barker said that protecting Australia’s northern fishery would require a sustained effort from authorities and greater support for people affected by natural disasters in Indonesia.

“The increase in incursions and more offences is a result of the cyclone that went through that southern Indonesian area,” he said.

“It’s not for Australia to lower its borders and let them come over into our waters and rape and plunder the reef system.”

Indonesian boats burnt at sea in crackdown on illegal fishing in Australian waters
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